Tuesday, November 11, 2008

A Black Man in the White House

Whether you voted for him or not, the election of Barack Obama is without question a watershed moment in the country’s history. Throughout the long months of the campaign, the so-called race factor was consistently downplayed. While African Americans registered and turned out to vote in record numbers, both the Obama campaign and prominent leaders in the black community were quick to stress that the candidate’s race was not and should not be a major issue.

Fast forward to the hours immediately following Obama’s victory. The mood among all his supporters was euphoric. The celebration in the black community in particular was ecstatic. African Americans danced in rapture in the streets. Veterans of the Civil Rights Movement, such as Jesse Jackson and Congressman John Lewis, wept openly. Oprah became, in her words, unleashed. Whoopi whooped and Maya Angelou expressed graceful thanks. There was an outpouring of emotion and grand proclamations of the immense significance of the election. A black man was coming to the White House.

On the weekend following the election, my local newspaper carried a story by Wil Haygood of the Washington Post. It touched on the history of blacks in the White House. In 1901, “President Theodore Roosevelt invited Booker T. Washington, head of the Tuskegee Institute, to meet with him at the White House. Roosevelt was careful not to announce the invitation, fearing a backlash, especially from Southerners.” Certain southerners found out and the response was swift and filled with hate.

According to Haygood, the first African American to work in the executive branch was E Frederick Morrow who was an administrative officer for special projects in the Eisenhower White House, appointed in 1955.

But someone had beaten him to it. Many blacks worked in non-political jobs in the White House. One of them was Eugene Allen who was hired as a butler in 1952. For $2,400 a year, Gene Allen polished silver and washed dishes. In the bowels of the President’s official residence, he plugged away at his menial job for thirty-four years. He felt proud to serve his country’s leaders.

Rewards came. Not only did Gene and his wife Helene shake the hand of every President he served, there was the special occasion in the mid-eighties when they were invited as guests to a state dinner. Nancy Reagan called Gene about the dinner, asked him how preparations were going, and then surprised him by inviting him and his wife, not to work, but to sit as their guests alongside world leaders. It was an honor they would never forget. Helene fondly remembered drinking champagne that night, champagne no doubt that her husband had stored.

Gene’s birthday was on the same day as Gerald Ford’s. When the Fords celebrated the President’s birthday, Betty always made sure Gene’s was mentioned as well. The Allens have fond memories of the Carters and the Kennedys. Through some of the darkest times in US history and through some of the best, Gene Allen was at work for his President. From the early fifties until the mid-eighties, there were some tough times being a black man carrying trays down the halls of power. Segregation, violence, protest marches and assassinations. Gene and Helene Allen saw it all.

Slowly, over the decades, they saw a few more African Americans creep into the influential inner circles, culminating in Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice’s consecutive appointments as Secretary of State. In Haygood’s words, “the butler remembers seeing both Powell and Rice in the Oval Office. He was serving refreshments. He couldn't help notice that blacks were moving closer to the center of power, closer than he could ever have dreamed. He'd tell Helene how proud it made him feel.”

And now this man. Obama. More than twenty years after Gene Allen stacked away his last wine glass, he and Helene were on the verge of seeing an African American man ascend to the highest office in the land. Some said he’d be the most powerful man on earth. Interviewed for the Washington Post, their excitement was palpable. Now in their late eighties, Gene and Helene prepared to get dressed up on Election Day and cast their vote for one of their own. How proud that would make them feel.

The day before that momentous day, Helene had a morning doctor’s appointment. Gene rolled over in bed to wake up his wife. She did not respond. He walked over to her side, but still she would not wake. After sixty-five years, the marriage had come to an end. On Election Day, Gene voted alone.

Helene never made it. But I know that, somewhere up there, this woman, who had shaken the hand of eight Presidents, knows who won. She knows that the baton has been passed to a new man, an African American man. There is a black man in the White House. For Gene and Helene Allen and for me, how proud it makes us feel.

Thanks to Wil Haygood. His article A Butler Well Served by This Election appeared in the Washington Post on 11/07/08 and is the inspiration for this story. Post photographer Kevin Clark’s photo of Gene and Helene appears here.

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