By David Schilp
The movie “The Butler” has taken the nation and the world by storm. It is based on the book The Butler: A Witness To History by Wil Haygood. Rutgers University – Newark hosted Haygood to speak to students and facility on February 24, 2014. The author and associate producer of the movie shared his experiences with the man who inspired the main character, Eugene Allen.
In 2008, Haygood was working for the Washington Post newspaper and covering a Barack Obama rally. There he saw three white females crying over how their fathers “would disown them from supporting a black man for president.” In that moment Haygood had an epiphany that Obama would win the 2008 election.
Haygood wanted to find an African American person who lived and worked in the White House during the Civil Rights movement. After much searching he found Eugene Allen, a former White House butler who worked under eight American presidents.
“Eugene and his wife (Helene) invited me into their house at 9:59 a.m. and we sat down to watch “Price is Right” at 10:00 a.m.” Haygood jokingly said. After they were finished watching the show, Allen and his wife told Haygood about how they were both born in the South and both ended up making their way up North to Washington D.C. Haygood recalled a story that Allen’s wife told him about how the first time the couple met she ended up asking Allen for his phone number.
Haygood spoke to the Rutgers Newark crowd about Allen’s life in the White House including the time period when the civil rights movement occurred. Allen witnessed everything from the death of Emmett Till up through the Reagan administration an eye witness to countless scenarios in between. He saw it all from behind the most secretive doors in the United States.
Out of all the experiences that Haygood had with Allen there was one that “changed my life” Heygood said. Allen kept all of the pictures and keepsakes from his years at the White House locked in his basement. “He had pictures of him and every president that he worked for, hand written letters from first ladies, and tie clips given to him from each president personally. “
Throughout Haygood’s presentation he spoke light heartedly about his wonderful experiences, until he started talking about the night before the 2008 presidential election. Haywood’s voice became somber and he spoke about how Mrs. Allen went up to bed that night and apparently commented, “I’m so at peace”. “Helene Allen passed away in her sleep that night.” Haywood sadly said.
Toward the end of Mr. Haygood’s presentation he spoke about how President Obama invited Mr. Allen, his son, and himself to sit in the VIP section at the inauguration. Crying, Allen said to Haygood, “I have worked for eight presidents and have never been invited to an inauguration.” Haygood recalled how Allen started to become short of breath as they were making their way to the stage, but Allen would not turn back. When Haygood asked Allen if he wanted to turn back Allen simply replied, “Charles (his son) you hold one arm, Wil you hold the other because I am not turning around.”
Haygood stood tall at the podium wearing a gold tie clip that President John F. Kennedy gave to Allen, which Allen then gave to Haygood before he died. Haygood spoke proudly of what has become of his story and of the African American butler who received flowers and a personalized letter from President Obama at his funeral.