“We gingerly walked down and when we got to the center of the basement, Mr. Allen clicked on the light switch and it literally changed my life. On every wall, there were framed photographs of Mr. Allen and all the presidents that he had worked for; Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, [Richard M. Nixon], Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan. It was amazing.”
That was the moment that exceeded Wil Haygood’s wildest dreams. It was the moment he discovered that Allen had witnessed history while working for decades as a butler in the White House. It laid the foundation for Haygood’s book, the story of Eugene Allen’s life, “The Butler: A Witness to History” (Simon and Schuster, 2013), whose life also inspired the blockbuster, star-studded movie directed by Lee Daniels in 2013.
During a lecture and book-signing event, Haygood shared details of his experience in locating the humble servant who witnessed the evolution of the civil rights movement from the White House, captivating a crowd of faculty, staff, students, alumni, and guests at California State University, Dominguez Hills in the Loker Student Union.
Haygood’s quest began while on assignment for the Washington Post, covering the 2008 presidential election campaign of then Senator Barack Obama. The award-winning journalist said once he felt certain that Obama would win, he became determined to find someone who could provide insights into the administrations that preceded the nation’s first African American president. He was hoping to find someone who would have served during at least one prior administration. He got far more than he bargained for.
Shortly after learning of Allen’s long-time service under eight American presidents, Haygood recounted what he told the former White House butler, “‘Mr. Allen, are you telling me that no one has ever written a story about your amazing epic life?’” he recalled asking, and then related Allen’s response as, “‘Well if you think I’m worthy, you’ll be the first.’”
Individuals who attended the Feb. 18 lecture had questions of their own and had the opportunity to ask them during a question and answer portion of the program.
One guest asked Haygood what traits Allen revealed. Haygood responded, “He had a steely resolve and beautiful perseverance.”
Prior to Haygood’s lecture, several alumni, including members of the Alumni Advisory Council, and invited guests were able to meet and talk with the author at a special reception sponsored by Alumni and Family Programs in the Club 1910 restaurant on campus.
“This is wonderful to have Wil Haygood at our university. It was such an honor to be in his presence, experience his humility and listen to the amazing experience he had with Mr. Eugene Allen,” said alumna Delarie Brooks (Class of ’82, B.A., communications), Alumni Advisory Counsel member.
Film and TV actor and alumnus Jeff Coopwood (’08, M.A., humanities) remarked that Haygood is a true “griot”—an African tribe member who entertains and keeps alive tribal history through storytelling.
Following the lecture, Haygood signed copies of his New York Times bestseller book for a long line of audience members. Representatives from the University Bookstore, which sponsored the lecture along with Associated Students, Inc., College of Arts and Humanities, Multicultural Center, Toro Productions, and University Housing, sold out 60 copies of “The Butler” to those who didn’t already have one.