Q&A with With Wil Haygood, Author of The Butler: Witness to History

It’s not every day that a newspaper article sparks a Hollywood movie starring Oprah Winfrey and Forest Whitaker.

But Wil Haygood’s 2008 Washington Post article about White House butler Eugene Allen wasn’t just any article.

Haygood has expanded his feature on Allen — who had a front row seat to the evolving civil rights movement as he served every president from Eisenhower to Reagan — into a book titled The Butler.

It offers an extended look at Allen’s story and a forward by Lee Daniels, who directed the film based on Allen’s life starring Winfrey and Whitaker. It arrives in theaters on Aug. 16.

Haygood, who will sign copies of the book at Politics & Prose at 7 p.m. Tuesday, spoke to The Hill about how he found Allen and told his incredible story.

Q: So many people read your article in The Washington Post. What can we expect more of in the book?

The book is a much more in-depth look at the life of Eugene and Helene Allen. It also is a historical retrospective of the history of blacks in American cinema. It also has much more about certain presidents who Eugene and Helene Allen worked for and their battles with civil rights inside the White House. …

I think it’s quite astonishing that Mr. Eugene Allen was in the White House on the day that the high school students in Little Rock, Ark., were pelted with rocks — the black students that tried to integrate Little Rock Central High School. … He was in the White House the day that the voting rights activist, Medgar Evers, was murdered in the driveway of his Jackson, Miss., home. He heard the echoes of that as that news reached the White House. He was there on the day that Martin Luther King was assassinated. He heard the echoes of all that.

He was in the White House the day that President Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas. And he was heartbroken, like people were everywhere in the nation, and he went home that evening, and he couldn’t sleep. He rose, in darkness and left his home about 3 a.m. to go back to the White House because he wanted to be there to check in on the first family.

Q: How did you find Eugene Allen to tell his story?

I had been on the Obama campaign trail in 2008 as a reporter for The Washington Post, and I was at a rally, and I saw some young ladies, and they were crying, and they happened to have been white. And I asked them, if anything was wrong, and if I could help, and they said they were distraught because they supported this candidate, and their white father had stopped talking to them because they supported this candidate.

At that point, I told myself that Obama was going to win. … So I started this nationwide search. I said to myself, and I looked everywhere, all over the country. North, South, East, West, Midwest, and one source led me to another and led me to another, and finally I was led to Mr. Allen.

Q: And he seems eager to tell his story.

 [Eugene and Helene Allen] had not told his story or their story. I think she felt happy I was there even though they never sought any limelight. They lived by themselves. Their living room was not bursting with autographs or highlights [from] his career as a White House butler for 34 years. They were very quiet about it. And who knows? Maybe she felt that at long last, it was time to tell his story. Their son Charles had come over on the day that I was there. I was there on that Friday and on that Sunday, two days before the election. His son, Charles, had come over … and his mother said, ‘Charles, I’m so happy. I’m so thrilled now.’ And he said, ‘Why? Have you hit the lottery?’ and she said ‘No, honey, no. A writer came over. Wil Haygood, and he’s going to write a story about my Eugene and finally somebody is going to know his story. I am just so at peace. And I’m going upstairs and going to bed.’ And she went upstairs and went to bed and died. Two days before the election of the African-American president. It’s quite a story, at so many angles. 

Q: Eugene Allen would’ve gotten a kick out of all this. (He died in 2010).

He was alive to see the story and after the story came out. He and I got VIP tickets to [Obama’s] inauguration, and he was so happy about that. That was special treatment for both of us. And after the story came out, it was reprinted in newspapers all over the world.

Q: Have you seen the film version?


Q: And you’re pleased with it?

I think it’s stunning. It made me cry. Lee Daniels is such a great director. And the members of the cast: Oprah Winfrey, Forest Whitaker, Cuba Gooding Jr., Terrence Howard, Robin Williams, Alan Rickman… they are all phenomenal. They so much wanted to do this movie because we just don’t see movies like this on the big screen in this country. We just don’t see movies that tell our epic civil rights moments.

The Butler: A Witness to History
By Wil Haygood
37 Ink publishing, July 2013
112 pages, $18