In a gripping and surprising story about the origin of a gripping and surprising story, Washington Post reporter Wil Haygood told an audience at NSBA’s Annual Conference on Sunday how an encounter with three unhappy women in North Carolina led to his book about Eugene Allen, the black man who served eight presidents. Allen was the subject of the acclaimed movie, “The Butler.”
The story begins in North Carolina in 2008, Haygood told a luncheon meeting of the NSBA’s Black Caucus. After covering an appearance by Sen. Barack Obama, who was trailing Hillary Clinton by 10 percentage points in the fight for the Democratic Party nomination, he encountered three white women, all crying. One told him that “Daddy” had kicked her out of the house because they were supporting Obama.
At that moment, Haygood became convinced that Obama’s base of support was wider than anyone suspected, and that he would become the next president. Preparing to cover that historic election, Haygood began looking for someone for whom Obama’s victory would mean the most. He decided that person might be an African-American who had worked in the White House, preferably before passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
His calls to government sources turned up nothing. But a former White House employee who heard about his quest, third-hand, called him and gave him Allen’s name. Not knowing where else to start, Haygood opened the phone book. On the 57th call, Gene Allen answered and agreed to an interview.
Haygood’s visit to Allen’s home, now a Historic National Landmark, coincided with broadcast of “The Price is Right,” which Allen and his wife, Helene, insisted was the first priority for the morning. By the end of the day, though, Haygood had filled seven reporter’s notebooks and been admitted into the inner sanctum of the Allen’s home – the basement. The room was full of photos, letters from first ladies, and gifts from presidents from Truman to Reagan. There were also photos of Allen with celebrities including Ella Fitzgerald, Sammy Davis Jr., and Michael Jackson.
“I was stunned,” Haygood said. “I looked around in total silence. Then I said, ‘Mr. Allen, are you saying no one has ever written about this, your amazing life?’”
Allen replied, “Well, if you think I’m worthy, you’ll be the first.”
But in a twist, Haygood said he decided not to write the story. A couple of days after the interview, Helene died.
Haygood blamed himself. He wondered if his relentless questions and the disruption of his visit to the Allens’ quiet life had been too much stress for the 86-year-old woman.
But then Allen’s son, Charles, called. He said one sentence that liberated Allen from his guilt and freed him to tell Allen’s story.
He said, “My momma was waiting on your knock.”
So Haygood wrote the story of Eugene Allen, who worked as an underling in the White House from the era of segregation through the election of a black president. He was an associate producer of the movie.
What is it about Allen that made him such a beloved figure, once his story became known?
“He loved this country more than this country’s laws loved him,” Haygood said. “If you ask me, that’s the definition of a patriot.”