CHARLESTON, W.Va. – As of this past weekend ‘Lee Daniels’ The Butler’ raked in more than $74 million at the box office in just two weeks. The story is based on the life of Eugene Allen, who served on the White House staff for 34 years under eight presidents.
The article the movie was based on, ‘The Butler: A Witness to History,’ was written by Wil Haygood who has a Charleston connection.
Haygood worked as a copy editor at the Charleston Gazette back in the early 80′s and still has good friends here in the city. He’s coming back for a visit later this month and will headline the University of Charleston Speaker Series on September 24 at the Geary Auditorium.
Haygood first met Allen while then-Senator Barack Obama was running for President. The author wanted to talk to someone who worked in the White House during the era of segregation and compare that to the first black president. He found Allen, long retired, and wrote an article on his life for the Washington Post.
Haygood said Allen was truly a witness to a changing time in American history.
“His career went as starting as a dish washer to rising all the way to the top butler position. From Truman to Reagan, Allen was there to see it all.”
Haygood said Allen’s job in the White House was sometimes seen as a subservient position but in his opinion it was much more.
“The Eugene Allen’s of the world couldn’t get fancy hotel jobs in the 1950′s,” explained Haygood. “So he had a job at the most powerful address in the world, 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.”
During that time, Haygood said Allen saw the civil rights movement up close and personal. In fact, during one of his interviews with Allen he learned of a defining moment in the butler’s life, a chance meeting with the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. in the kitchen of the White House.
Haygood admitted there were perks for Allen as a butler in the White House but it wasn’t the center of his universe.
“He took that job and put food on the table and he sent his son to college…The stability of his home life certainly was a great measure of the man and the joy that he had in life,” stressed Haygood.
The author will share more of his talks with Allen during his appearance at the University of Charleston. Those who are a fan of his work will have a chance to have Haygood sign it from 5pm-6pm at Riggleman Hall on September 24.