White House Butler Gene Allen Dies at 90, Survived Jim Crow Era To Vote for Obama
April 3, 2010
(ChattahBox)—-Eugene Allen, a longtime African American White House butler, who served eight presidents, died March 31, at the ripe old age of 90. Allen watched the slow march of progress for black people in America through the prism of his position from the White House kitchen, quietly and respectfully. From the insidious racism of the Jim Crow laws, to the landmark Supreme Court decision Brown vs. Board of Education, and the historic Civil Rights bills, Allen witnessed racial history, while he shined the silver and opened doors for distinguished heads of state.
When he retired in 1986, during the Reagan administration, blacks were inching closer to power. Soon after, Colin Powell would become national security adviser; the highest position ever attained by a black person at that point, followed by Condoleezza Rice. But never in his wildest dreams did Allen expect to live to see the day when a black man was elected president. He and his wife of 65-years, Helene, were profiled by the Washington Post on the eve of Obama’s election, and they both looked forward to the day when they would vote for him together:
“They talked about praying to help Barack Obama get to the White House. They’d go vote together. She’d lean on her cane with one hand, and on him with the other, while walking down to the precinct. And she’d get supper going afterward. They’d gone over their Election Day plans more than once.”
‘”Imagine,” she said.”
‘”That’s right,” he said.”
But Helene died in her sleep, the day before the election. The next day, Allen walked alone to the polls to cast his vote for the first black president of the United States.
Later, he was honored by President Obama, with a special invitation to view his swearing-in ceremony. Allen, with much fanfare, was escorted to his VIP seat by a Marine guard. His life of segregation, early hardship and pride in serving eight presidents for 34-years in the White House, as a butler, had come full circle.
When he left the White House, he had risen to become maitre d’, the highest position possible for the kitchen staff. According to the Washington Post, Allen began his career as a White House butler, when he was first hired to wash dishes:
“Mr. Allen was born July 14, 1919, in Scottsville, Va. He worked as a waiter at the Homestead resort in Hot Springs, Va., and later at a country club in Washington. In 1952, he heard of a job opening at the White House and was hired as a “pantry man,” washing dishes, stocking cabinets and shining silverware for $2,400 a year.”
His other highlights over his long career, were being invited by Nancy Reagan, along with his wife, to attend a state dinner as guests of the president. And he once met Martin Luther King, when the famed Civil Rights leader, while visiting the White House, insisted on meeting with the kitchen staff.
Allen leaves his son, Charles, five grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.
See the Washington Post for more.
Photo Credit: Washington Post