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The Real Story: “The Butler” and the Real Man Who Served Eight Presidents

posted by Nell Minow

“Lee Daniels’ The Butler” has Forest Whitaker as a man who worked for eight Presidents in the White House from the time of Jim Crow segregation to the Civil Rights era.  It was inspired by the real-life story of Eugene Allen, who came to the White House to work for Harry Truman and stayed on through Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, and Reagan. Just before Barack Obama was about to become America’s first black President, Washington Post reporter Wil Haygood thought it would be interesting to talk to a black employee in the White House “from the era of segregation.” He found Allen, and wrote “A Butler Well Served,”

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When he started at the White House in 1952, he couldn’t even use the public restrooms when he ventured back to his native Virginia. “We had never had anything,” Allen, 89, recalls of black America at the time. “I was always hoping things would get better.”

Allen wore a tuxedo on the job and often worked six days a week.  He was proud that he never missed a day.  When he retired, President and Mrs. Reagan invited him to a State dinner.  As a guest.  He was able to vote for Barack Obama in 2008.  He died in 2010.

The new all-star film fictionalizes the details but has Forest Whitaker as a butler based on Allen and Oprah Winfrey as his wife, with history happening all around them, affecting time, sometimes in contrast to what their family experiences.

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For more details, read Haygood’s new book about Eugene Allen, The Butler: A Witness to History.

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