Sharing a piece of history behind history: The backstory to ‘The Butler’

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Unless you’ve been under a rock, you’ve heard about  “The Butler,” the Lee Daniels film about a White House employee who served a number of Presidents and witnessed some of the most historic moments in United States History. You may know that the film was based on a series of stories by Washington Post award-winning writer Wil Haygood.

What you may not know is the story about how it all came to pass. Haygood gave the background of what may well be one of the most compelling narratives of the Presidency as seen and told from an eyewitness to history in a presentation of the Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures at the Byham Theater, Downtown.

During the run-up to the historic 2008 presidential election while covering the primaries, Haygood had an inkling that something historic would happen with the election of the senator from Illinois. He shared his idea with his editor to locate a former White House employee who would then share their reflections of impending change on the American landscape. After much consternation, particularly in the midst of the run for the highest office in the free world, Haygood’s editor gave him a few days to flush out his idea on the understanding that if nothing panned out, Haygood would return to the campaign trail.

Needless to say, providence was on Haygood side when he got a tip of an elderly man who had worked under three presidents. Haygood made the phone call, identified himself and explained why he called. From the other end of the phone came the response, “That was EIGHT presidents.”

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Haygood proves to be not only an acclaimed engaging writer (a 1990 Pulitzer Prize finalist, Guggenheim Fellow and National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowship) but also quite raconteur holding his audience in rapt attention. He provided compelling context; the White House butler, Eugene Allen, served during incidents that would shape the struggle and consummation of the struggle for civil rights—the Great Migration, the murders of Emmett Till, Medgar Evers, the four little girls in Birmingham and the three college freedom riders in Mississippi, the rise and fall of Martin Luther King Jr. Allen was privy to seminal moments: after King finished meeting with the President, he asked to see his people- the folks in the kitchen.

Allen worked 34 years under eight presidents—Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan and—and never missed a day’s work. During the aftermath of the Kennedy assassination, he put together a small party to occupy the children.

While interviewing Allen and his wife, Helene, unknown to Haygood, he was being vetted for a surprise beyond anything imagined — the collection of memorabilia that included pictures with world leaders and celebrities, handwritten notes and other keepsakes.

Haygood shared especially poignant moments with the Allens on the eve of the November 2008 election. After 65 years of marriage, Helene passed in her sleep. Allen told Haygood that his wife always felt someone should write about her husband’s time in the White House. Because the story ran in the paper, she was able to pass away happy and peaceful.

Haygood concluded his remarks like every good story —with a climax and an end. The climax was helping Allen’s son escort his father through the sea of humanity to be seated by military guard in a prime spot to see a Black man take the oath of office and become the newest resident of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. He then concluded his remarks by sharing a keepsake that  Allen received from President Kennedy—the tie-clip that Haygood was wearing that evening.

The Haygood lecture was presented in junction with the Hill House Association’s 50th anniversary, just one of several partnerships developed (including the United Black Book Clubs of Pittsburgh) by retiring arts and lectures head Jayne Adair.

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