Wil Haygood gave voice to White House butler

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On a Monday morning in May, there's a trace of fatigue in Wil Haygood's voice during a telephone interview.

That's because the Washington Post journalist is finishing his seventh book, due out next year.

An award-winning author, Mr. Haygood was covering Barack Obama's 2008 presidential campaign when he decided to search for a White House employee who was African-American. After many dead ends and more than 50 phone calls, he tracked down and interviewed Eugene Allen. The retired African-American butler served eight U.S. presidents at the White House.

Mr. Haygood's story, published in The Washington Post after President Obama's election, captured Allen's life and times. The article inspired the movie "Lee Daniels' The Butler," which starred Forest Whitaker and Oprah Winfrey. The Oscar-nominated film also is up for best movie, best actor (Mr. Whitaker) and best actress (Ms. Winfrey) at the 2014 BET Awards in Los Angeles June 29. Mr. Haygood served as an associate producer on the film, which was shot in New Orleans. He is also the author of "The Butler: A Witness to History," a 97-page book published last year that is filled with evocative photos from Allen's White House years, stories about his life and the racial crises confronted by five American presidents.

The African-American author, who speaks Monday night at 7:30 p.m. in the Byham Theater, continues wading deeply into the rich, muddy waters of this nation's civil rights history.

He is putting the finishing touches on a book about the confirmation hearing in 1967 for Thurgood Marshall, the first African-American to serve as an associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. Seventy days passed between President Lyndon Johnson's nomination of Marshall and the U.S. Senate vote.

By the time Marshall began fielding questions about his qualifications from U.S. senators, he had made his legal reputation as the architect of the landmark case Brown v. the Board of Education. The U.S. Supreme Court case ordered an end to segregated public schools, ruling that "separate but equal" accommodations for African-Americans was a violation of their constitutional rights.

But not everyone agreed with that decision, especially Marshall's biggest detractors -- South Carolina Sen. Strom Thurmond, Mississippi Sen. James Eastland, who chaired the Senate Judiciary Committee, and Arkansas Sen. John McClellan. All three were avowed segregationists.

To Mr. Haygood, Marshall's confirmation hearing represents the last gasp of the old South's "lost cause" and its patriarchal plantation mentality.

Eugene Allen, the White House butler, knew all about plantation life because he was born on one and later made his way north to Virginia. While working at a country club in Washington, D.C., he learned of a job opening and was hired as a pantry man at the White House in 1952. By the time he retired in 1986, Allen had served presidents Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan.

Mr. Haygood, who attended Mr. Obama's first inauguration with Allen, said the late butler's home, in the Park View neighborhood in Washington, D.C.'s northwest quadrant, recently was placed on the local historic register.

"It's the first time in the history of America that a butler's home has been placed on the historic register," he said, adding that the designation brought tears to the eyes of Charles Allen, the only child of Eugene and Helene Allen.

Many schoolchildren are seeing "The Butler," and Allen's story gives them a window into American history.

"He's a humble man they can filter history through. They are learning a lot about American history through his life -- Emmett Till, Medgar Evers, Rosa Parks, Dr. King, Harry Belafonte and about the march on Washington in 1963," the author said.

Asked about Allen's collection of more than 2,500 photos plus mementos and letters, Mr. Haygood said, "His materials will wind up some place very important in due time."

The author harbors hope that 2013, which featured such movies as "42" "12 Years a Slave" and "The Butler," will inspire Hollywood to make more movies about African-Americans.

"You have this wicked lie that movies with African-Americans don't perform at the box office. Hollywood has to stop saying that. 'The Butler' was No. 1 three weeks in a row. It's approaching $200 million worldwide."

Mr. Haygood speaks Monday at 7:30 p.m. in the Byham Theater, 101 Sixth St., Downtown. For tickets, pittsburghlectures.org or 412-622-8866.

Marylynne Pitz: mpitz@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1648.

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