Eugene Allen served as a butler for eight presidents. (Kevin Clark/THE WASHINGTON POST)


A Witness to History

By Wil Haygood

37Ink/Atria. 96 pp. $18

America announced that it was ready for a black president in November 2008, but Wil Haygood found out a few months earlier. That summer, after covering a Barack Obama rally at the University of North Carolina for The Washington Post, Haygood was returning to the media bus when he heard three college women crying on a nearby bench. “Our fathers don’t want us supporting a black man,” one told Haygood, “but they can’t stop us.”

Those young women “staring down their daddies”convinced Haywood that an Obama victory was imminent. He immediately set out to find a White House employee “from the era of segregation” for a piece that might capture the poignancy of the occasion. After some digging, he met Eugene Allen, a butler who had worked for eight presidents — Truman through Reagan — over 34 years.

Haygood’s article, “A Butler Well Served by This Election,” ran on the front page of this newspaper three days after the senator from Illinois made history. But the story didn’t end there. A fictionalized movie about Allen’s life boasting an A-list cast (Forest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey, etc.) will hit theaters this month. In a new gift book, “The Butler: A Witness to History,” Haygood tells us how his story and the film came to be.

The author ably captures Allen, a shy, discreet man who rose from a Scottsville, Va., plantation to live in the “hard shadow of power.”He was there, for example, trying to cheer up young John and Caroline Kennedy in the days after their father had been slain. He did so well at it that “for a little while at least,” Haygood writes, “there was the cacophony of little voices squealing with delight.” At the end of his career during the Reagan administration, Allen became one of the guests at a White House state dinner.

The book also describes how African Americans are woefully underrepresented in the motion picture industry. “Filmmakers are, after all, ultimate gamblers,” Haygood writes. “Throw race into the gamble, and the predictions get a lot trickier.” He notes that while many African American-themed films feature a white savior, “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” (as it’s being called because of a copyright dispute) will break that mold.

Allen died in 2010, and in perhaps the book’s most touching moment, the first female White House usher recalls how “Gene” used to help her calm down by inviting her to lunch. “And he had already set up a lovely place setting for me and him,” she tells Haygood. “He may have been the best man I ever met.”

— John Wilwol