‘Lee Daniels’ The Butler’ and the History of Black Work at the White House
“Lee Daniels’ The Butler” hits theaters nationwide today. The film is based on the true story of Eugene Allen, an African-American butler who served eight different presidents over the course of a 34-year career. Allen’s story is one of servitude set against the backdrop of years of political change, and it represents the unique view that black service workers have had at the White House since its construction. In the book “The Black History of the White House,” American University history professor Clarence Lusane outlines some of this story. From the hundreds of black enslaved workers who helped build the White House to the countless others who have toiled over the years in its back rooms and kitchens, Lusane lifts up the veil on decades of untold history. I spoke to Lusane about why this moment is an important one.
Why is the history of black labor in the White House important to tell–especially at a time when we do have a black president?
I think that’s exactly the reason why. When Barack Obama was running for president, there were of course lots of stories about what it would mean if he won. But what was missing in almost all of the reports was the longer history of African-Americans who had actually not only worked in the White House, but actually had built the White House–people who were slaves as well as people who were free. So part of my motivation was to give a context for the significance of Obama coming into the White House. He wasn’t the first African-American and, in fact, when you look at the history of the White House and its relationship with black people, it gives you a lot of information about the history of race in the country.
How did you get the stories and the names of the people you cover in your book?
Fortunately, I live in Washington, D.C. When I would tell people what I was working on, invariably [someone] would say, “Oh, yeah. My cousin worked at the White House,” and “My uncle used to be a butler at the White House.” So I was able to get clues to these individuals just by the atmosphere of D.C. where a large number of people have had a long labor history with the White House. Also, I talked to historians. I was trying to connect lots and lots of dots that weren’t necessarily connected. It meant going to the library and, for example, looking up the histories of the slave holders of people who had worked on buildings and worked in the White House.
Were there any prevailing themes that came up when you were looking through these stories?
One was that up until the mid-1950s, every black person who worked at the White House was either there as an enslaved person or as a servant; there were no advisers. There were no black people on the executive staff up until 1955. I thought it was significant to note that the black presence in the White House was not a political or policy one, but one of servitude. But it’s also interesting in terms of D.C. itself. Particularly after the Civil War, the black people who worked in the White House represented, in part, the rising black middle class in Washington, D.C. [Working there] was seen as a very prestigious, even though people were there as maids and butlers. It even took the form of a kind of color prejudice where invariably most people who worked there were light-skinned. There was a resistance to hiring dark-skinned black people, not only by the presidents and the chiefs of staffs, but by the other the other blacks who worked there as well.
From what you can tell, what’s the lasting impact of that?
What I tried to argue in the book was that all of these experiences that existed in the White House were reflected in the broader society. When the White House finally hired black folks to be on the executive staff it wasn’t because the president suddenly felt this openness. It was the direct result of the rising Civil Rights Movement and black people’s struggle to end racism. So in the mid-1950s, when Truman and Eisenhower began to bring black people onto their staffs, even in token positions, it was because there was the Montgomery Bus Boycott, because there was a crisis in Little Rock, because of what happened with Emmett Till, because of what was happening with Brown v. The Board of Education. All of that was happening outside of the White House ended up having an impact on staffing there.
What else should we know about this history?
There were other black butlers at the White House who existed for many years. There was a butler called Alonso Fields who worked there for more than two decades. He wrote a book called “My 21 Years at the White House.” There was another black butler there named John Strickland who worked there for 43 years. And then there were women who worked there, principally as maids. One very famous one, Lilian Rodgers Parks, wrote a book called “My 30 Years Backstairs at the White House.” And so there are some published works that give you at least a sense of what people’s daily work life was like at the White House. What’s notable is that most of those books tend to be very apolitical. Part of working in the White House was to be discreet, to basically be invisible. … Regardless of what kind of craziness is going on politically right in front of you, you don’t have an opinion. So they’re making all kinds of racist statements and whatever, and your job is to know what your job is. But of course that creates a kind of dissonance because you’re watching this. What comes across in these books is that dissonance where people witness history being made but could not intervene and could not even comment on it at the time except that they later wrote about it in their memoirs.