Wil Haygood, Washington Post reporter and author of “The Butler,” stood on a stage facing an audience full of anticipation. Haygood was moments away from giving the keynote address for the St. Louis Public Library’s Black History Month celebration held recently at the Central Library, 1301 Olive St. Word of his appearance had created a lot of buzz across the metro area. People had traveled from near and far (in the snow) to hear him speak.
During his keynote address, overhead lighting hit his gold-plated tie clip. He told the audience it was a gift from Eugene Allen – the humble White House butler who had faithfully served eight presidents, from Harry S. Truman to Ronald Reagan.
“If a president thought highly of you,” Allen explained to Haygood, “he would give you a gift.”
Haygood said Allen’s story is a “civil rights story.” It’s a tale that epitomizes this year’s national Black History Month theme, Civil Rights in America. The Association for the Study of African American Life and History chose the theme to mark the 50th anniversary of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
Haygood said he was thrilled to be in the historic Central Library. As a child of meager means growing up in Columbus, Ohio, Haygood said libraries were places of refuge where he could “escape his tough surroundings.”
“I spent a lot of time at libraries dreaming of what I might become in life,” Haygood said.
He shared with the audience the story of an encounter he had with a boy who had led him to a village elder in Somalia, an incident he said nearly broke his heart. Haygood had been staying in the village for several days while covering the civil war for The Boston Globe.
“We’ve saved these,” said the village elder, referring to a pile of books.
The village elder told Haygood that whenever rebels invade a village, the first thing they do is burn the books.
“You should be mighty proud of yourselves for the stewardship of this great library,” Haygood said to his St. Louis audience. “Nothing is more sacred than keeping civilization alive.”
Haygood next told the story of how fate led him to Allen. In 2008, Haygood was assigned to cover the campaign trail of then-Sen. Barack Obama for The Washington Post. Haygood was convinced that within several days the nation would elect its first African-American president. Haygood pitched the idea to his editor of locating and interviewing someone who had worked at the White House before the passage of the Civil Rights Act.
Haygood’s story “A Butler Well Served by This Election” was published on November 7, 2008, three days after the president’s election. The article was reprinted in newspapers across the world and evolved into the best-selling book “The Butler: A Witness to History.”
The book offers a more in-depth portrait of Allen’s lifelong journey, from his birth in 1919 on a Southern plantation to his years of service at the White House. Haygood’s book went on to become the inspiration for the critically and popularly acclaimed motion picture, “The Butler,” directed by Lee Daniels.
Haygood said Obama wrote a letter to Allen after reading the story. Allen, his only son, Charles, and Haygood were all invited to attend Obama’s inauguration. Allen told Haygood that this was the first time he had ever been invited to attend an inauguration.
“When I was in the White House, you couldn’t even dream that you could dream of a moment like this,” Allen told Haygood as Obama took his oath of office.
The gold-plated tie clip, which Haygood proudly wore, was a gift to Allen from President John F. Kennedy. He gave it to the butler while working on the Civil Rights Act that was passed after his untimely death. Haygood politely refused the gift at first, he said. Allen insisted, explaining how much Haygood had meant to him and his deceased wife, Helene. Haygood ended his address with great news.
“Just recently,” Haygood said with great pleasure, “the home of the butler, Eugene Allen, has been added to the historic register in Washington, D.C.”