Wil Haygood, journalist and author of The Butler: A Witness to History, was the keynote speaker today at the St. Louis Public Library, formally starting off Black History Month in St. Louis. Formally, because programs started on the first of February, and a free screening of The Butler movie was a few days later. I missed the movie and will have to see it, but I have Wil’s book, surprisingly slim at 95 pages including photos from the movie and an essay about African Americans portrayed in Hollywood movies. I had expected some big biography, but Eugene Allen, the butler, died only 16 months after Wil Haygood first spoke with him. And sadly, Helene Allen, Eugene’s wife, had died in her sleep only a few days after that first meeting. The book is about Haygood’s experiences finding and befriending Eugene and about the filming of the movie, which is not about the real Eugene, but incorporates some of his stories.
Wil Haygood is a good speaker, one who knows how to pause at the right moments. He kept us enthralled with his story. An audience member commented during the Q&A, “Your story of coming to tell the story is a story in itself.” That was true; how Haygood found Eugene Allen and got his stories was fascinating stuff. Haygood believed Barack Obama would win the presidency after he saw three white girls crying on the sidewalk one day and found it was because their daddies were refusing to speak to them because they were going to vote for a black man. If young ladies in the South were daring to rebel against their daddies . . . Haygood the reporter wanted a story about a black person’s thoughts about the first black man elected president, thoughts from someone who had worked in the White House and been around during the civil rights era. On a tip, Haygood’s 57th call to the Eugene Allens in the phone book hit the jackpot.
After interviewing Allen and his wife, Haygood posted an article on the history of blacks in the White House that ran in the Washington Post on the day of Helene Allen’s burial – three days after Obama was elected. “A Butler Well Served by this Election” brought letters to Eugene and to Wil from all over the world, many expressing sadness that Helene died one day before she could have voted for the first black president.
Helene had been the one telling people her husband had important stories. She died happy, announcing to their son the night before that someone had finally come to write down those stories. After listening to Eugene, an astonished Haygood had asked him whether anyone had written his stories down before. Eugene answered, “If you think I’m worthy, you’ll be the first.”
Do you know anyone worthy enough for you to write down their stories? You never know.