Wil Haygood is a former Post reporter. He is the author of “The Butler: A Witness to History” and “Tigerland: 1968-1969: A City Divided, a Nation Torn Apart, and a Magical Season of Healing.”
It was big, heady stuff in the 1950s for a black man or woman to be employed as part of domestic service staff inside the White House. There would often be a basement party inside someone’s Washington home to celebrate the news. Wilson Jerman — who attended more than a few of those parties — had gotten work inside the White House as a “House man” during the Eisenhower administration doing menial tasks. But he formed a bond with Eugene Allen, a butler who had begun his long White House career during the Truman administration. Allen suggested to Jerman that he set his sights on becoming a butler, which he eventually did.
With the death of Wilson Jerman at age 91 from covid-19, the curtain falls on a singular era in the nation’s capital. It was a period that flowed from segregation to integration, an era of black White House domestic employees who witnessed the dominating power of southern Dixiecrat politicians, the rise of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and all the propulsive news that resonated throughout black America: the Little Rock school crisis, the signing of civil rights bills, the Vietnam War, urban uprisings, the two black nominees to the U.S. Supreme Court. Wilson Jerman witnessed it all. He would work with 11 presidents. His 50-year plus White House career ended in 2012.
I first met Jerman in 2008. After being dispatched by The Post to various cities during the presidential campaign that year, I wanted to write a story about the history of blacks in the White House. That history had been most fully embodied by domestic service workers because for nearly two centuries administrations would not hire blacks for executive positions.
I told the story of Eugene Allen. He and his wife, Helene, had been friends with Jerman for years. Jerman was an impish soul, sweet-natured, raspy-voiced and quick to smile. Like most of the black domestic White House employees of his era, he saw the job as a cloak of opportunity — and an expression of his patriotism. Somehow, he and Allen made it through the dangerous streets of a riotous Washington during the late 1960s to reach their place of work. “You really wanted to get to the House [their phrase for the White House] to make sure everyone was okay,” Jerman had said.
Unlike Allen, Jerman did not crave the upper echelons of work at the executive mansion. Allen rose to maître d’, overseeing an array of White House events. Jerman would talk later about the schism in the 1960s, when many blacks, especially young blacks, would belittle those who worked in service jobs at the White House. He heard the words “Uncle Tom” more than once, and it hurt him. “But the presidents were beautiful, just beautiful to work for,” he said. “We took such pride in our work.”
By the time Allen died in 2010, Laura Ziskin and Pam Williams, two Hollywood producers, were at work on a film drawing on his life. How to get inside the White House to do research? To see the areas where butlers and maids worked? Charles Allen, Eugene’s son, suggested contacting Jerman. “I’ll set everything up,” Jerman told me. “When do you want to come?”
It was a cool and sunny day when Charles Allen, screenwriter Danny Strong and I arrived at the White House gates. Jerman was awaiting us. During the tour, which he led, he looked quite proud. He took us to rarely seen recesses of the White House. “I want you to know very few outsiders get to see this,” he said, waving his arms in the direction of cabinets, dishes and heaps of elegant table linen.
While attending a Washington ceremony in 2014 to honor his late friend Eugene Allen, Jerman was surrounded by admirers and thanked for his decades-long White House run. “Oh my,” he said, “it was all such a pleasure.”