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Eugene Allen attends birthday party for John F. Kennedy Jr. and Caroline Kennedy in 1962.

John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum/NARA

Eugene Allen served in the White House for 34 years. Assisting eight presidents, Allen’s top priority was to make the White House a comfortable residence for each chief executive and his family.

Allen was born in 1919 on a plantation farm near Scottsville in central Virginia.1 During his youth, he worked as a waiter at a resort in Virginia and at a country club in Washington, D.C.2 He met his wife Helene at a party in 1942 and they married soon after. They had one child—a son, named Charles.3 Allen first heard about a job opening at the White House in 1952 and decided to meet with Alonzo Fields, who served as White House maître d’.4

Even though Allen was not searching for new employment, he accepted a job as a pantry man. He washed dishes, stocked cabinets and shined silverware. When Allen accepted this position at the White House, he did not expect to witness some of the most pivotal movements of the twentieth century. Allen observed social changes that would not only transform race relations across the country, but also inside the White House.

Eugene Allen is pictured to the right of this image at a reception hosted by President Kennedy for PT Boat Veterans in 1962.

John F. Kennedy Presidential and Museum/NARA

As a butler, Allen frequently served the president and his guests. This made him privy to private conversations and debates regarding African American rights. Allen watched as President Dwight Eisenhower argued with Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus over the Little Rock School desegregation in 1957.5 Allen noted that when President John F. Kennedy hosted events at the White House, more African American guests attended than ever before.6 When Kennedy was assassinated, Allen stayed behind at the White House to assist in serving those that would be returning to the building after the funeral service.7 Allen stood by President Lyndon B. Johnson as he evaluated how to handle the Vietnam War, helping him to sleep by serving the president milk and Scotch.8 Realizing the professionalism of working at the White House, Allen never uttered a word about the war, even with his son fighting overseas. The only time Allen spoke regarding the Vietnam War was when President Johnson asked him if his son was still alive.9

President Gerald R. Ford and Allen also shared their birthday, July 14. First Lady Betty Ford and President Ford often included Allen in the birthday celebrations. Allen reflected on one of his favorite memories, where First Lady Betty Ford stated at President Ford’s birthday party, “It’s Gene’s birthday too!”10

Allen dutifully served in the White House while also sharing personal bonds with several of the presidents and their families. He visited former President Eisenhower at his home in Gettysburg after his administration.11 After the assassination of President Kennedy, First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy presented Allen with one of the president’s ties. Allen cherished this memento by having it framed and hung in his home.12 Allen and his wife received many photos, letters and Christmas cards throughout the years from both former and current presidents. Toward the end of Allen’s career working as a butler at the White House, First Lady Nancy Reagan invited Allen and his wife to attend a State Dinner, as guests, in honor of West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl in October 1986.13

President Ford shaking hands with Eugene Allen before his final departure at the White House on January 20, 1977.

Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library and Museum/NARA

When Allen retired in 1986, he had served the White House as a pantry man, butler, and maître d’.14 During his retirement, first families remained in contact with Allen and his family. First Lady Hillary Clinton honored Allen, alongside many other long-term White House workers, at a 1995 event at the White House. Allen discussed the importance of his job, saying, “It never snowed too deep or rained too hard for you not to go to work every day. It didn’t matter what you had planned or what came up in your family. For the president, you changed your appointments.”15 

President George W. Bush and First Lady Laura Bush mailed a letter of condolence after Allen’s wife Helene passed away on the eve of the election of President Barack Obama.16

Allen’s life story was published in the Washington Post by journalist Wil Haygood soon after President Obama’s historic election in 2008.17 Allen’s story spread across the country and he received a VIP invitation to President-Elect Obama’s inauguration. He attended the ceremony with his son, Charles, and Haygood.

Allen passed away on March 31, 2010, in Washington, D.C., at the age of 90.

Eugene Allen experienced crucial moments in American history during his time at the White House. The special times he shared with the presidents and their families reveal the daily life at the White House amidst these historic chapters of the United States.18

Eugene Allen serves First Lady Nancy Reagan and guests at a gathering in the Red Room.

Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum/NARA

This article was originally published February 9, 2017

Footnotes & Resources

  1. Wil Haygood, The Butler: A Witness to History. New York: Atria Books, 2013. 7.
  2. Wil Haygood, “A Butler Well Served By This Election,” Washington Post. November 7, 2008. https://www.washingtonpost.com...
  3. Charles would go on to fight in the Vietnam War.
  4. African Americans in the White House Timeline, White House Historical Association. https://www.whitehousehistory....
  5. Haygood, 11.
  6. Haygood, 13.
  7. Wil Haygood, “Eugene Allen, White House butler for 8 presidents, dies at 90,” Washington Post. Friday April 2, 2010.
  8. http://www.washingtonpost.com/...
  9. Wil Haygood, “Eugene Allen, White House butler for 8 presidents, dies at 90,” Washington Post. Friday April 2, 2010.
  10. http://www.washingtonpost.com/...
  11. Haygood, 15.
  12. African Americans in the White House Timeline, White House Historical Association.
  13. https://www.whitehousehistory....
  14. Haygood, 86.
  15. Wil Haygood, “Eugene Allen, White House butler for 8 presidents, dies at 90,” Washington Post. Friday April 2, 2010.
  16. http://www.washingtonpost.com/...
  17. Wil Haygood, “Eugene Allen, White House butler for 8 presidents, dies at 90,” Washington Post. Friday April 2, 2010.
  18. http://www.washingtonpost.com/...
  19. Clarence Lusane, The Black History of the White House (San Francisco: Open Media Series, 2011, 270.
  20. Hamil R. Harris, “First Lady Honors White House Workers: School Event Teaches Children of Devotion,” Washington Post. February 16, 1995. DC3.
  21. Wil Haygood, “Eugene Allen, White House butler for 8 presidents, dies at 90,” Washington Post. Friday April 2, 2010.
  22. http://www.washingtonpost.com/...
  23. Wil Haygood, “A Butler Well Served By This Election,” Washington Post. November 7, 2008. https://www.washingtonpost.com...
  24. After Wil Haygood’s article was published in the Washington Post it received national attention. The movie, “The Butler,” was inspired by Allen’s story. You can learn more here: http://time.com/2219/what-the-butler-really-saw/.

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