It took 57 phone calls for Wil Haygood, an American author and journalist, to finally find Eugene Allen, a butler that worked for eight presidents over the course of nearly 35 years. Eugene Allen was a common name in the Washington, D.C. area — Haygood went through three phone books to find the man that would be the center point of his Washington Post article, “A Butler Well Served by This Election.”
As the William K. McInally Memorial Lecture keynote speaker, Haygood delivered an address chronicling his relationship with Allen in the Ross School of Business on Monday. The lecture, part of a series of events surrounding Martin Luther King Jr. Day, has been in place since 1966.
During his remarks, Haygood told the story of Allen, who worked at the White House before and after the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Haygood spoke about finding and meeting Allen, as well as the relationship they developed following the article’s debut in the Post.
“He was in the White House the day Lyndon Johnson signed the 1964 Civil Rights Act,” Haygood said. “Eugene Allen, who worked at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, the most powerful address in the world, would go back to his home in Virginia and couldn't try on a suit in a store because of the color of his skin.”
Haygood said while interviewing Allen — whose story also inspired the movie, "The Butler" — the former butler took him down into the basement of his home, which was covered with dozens of photos. The photos featured Allen and many presidents and historical figures, like Martin Luther King Jr., Elvis Presley and Sammy Davis Jr.
“On every wall was history, White House history, through the eyes of this Black man,” Haygood said.
In an interview after the lecture, Business Prof. Lynn Wooten, the associate dean of undergraduate programs at the business school, said hearing about Allen’s basement was her favorite part of the speech.
“I think that was his way of verifying his professional identity, and thinking of who he was and how he had served his country, the physical symbolic parts,” Wooten said.
Haygood said after hearing Allen’s story he was shocked that it hadn’t received prior journalistic attention. During their interview, he said he asked Allen if anyone had ever written about his life.
“He put his hand on my shoulder and said, ‘Well, if you think I’m worthy, you’ll be the first,’ ” Haygood said.
LSA senior Nina Mostovoi, who attended the event, said she thought the speech was inspiring.
“I really liked how he laid out the speech, told a very original story, but still related it to Martin Luther King and how Eugene Allen's life is intertwined with MLK's,” Mostovoi said.
Wooten said she also found the connection with Martin Luther King Jr. to be a high point of the speech.
“I really enjoyed it because it intersected King's message with history,” Wooten said. “It got me to think about over the years, somebody, a dreammaker like the butler, how did he live King's everyday message?”
LSA sophomore Caroline Hyman, who also attended the event, said Haygood’s storytelling inspired her to learn more about Allen’s life.
“It was a really interesting story and I've never heard of the book or the movie, so I'm definitely thinking about either reading it or seeing the movie,” Hyman said.