By Lori Wysong
Elm Staff Writer
For many, the basement is a storage space filled with forgotten objects. Eugene Allen filled his basement with personal letters from first ladies, gifts from the presidents and their families, and album after album of photos from his time serving as a butler under eight administrations at the White House. It is not your average basement.
This remarkable man’s life inspired the 2008 article “A Butler Well Served by this Election,” upon which the movie “The Butler” was based.
On Nov. 18, Wil Haygood, the 2017-2018 Patrick Henry Writing Fellow, who wrote the series of articles that inspired the movie “The Butler,” escorted a bus full of Washington College students to D.C. They were the first group of college students to see the collection.
Pat Nugent, deputy director of the Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience, said that the students’ “preparedness, respect, excitement, and curiosity came across loud and clear for both Wil Haygood and Charles Allen.”
Charles Allen, son of Eugene and his wife, Helene, graciously gave the group permission to visit, and was present to speak with the students and guide them through his parents’ home.
Before they entered the basement, Charles Allen discussed the lives of his parents with some of the students. Haygood said that, “Some of them got tears in their eyes.”
Seeing the collection itself was an emotional experience as well.
“It seemed to me that they were in awe. This was a figure that they only knew from the movie and maybe the story that I had written,” he said.
Now, they were standing in front of John F. Kennedy ’s tie and Lyndon B. Johnson’s Stetson hat, not to mention photos of Eugene Allen dating from his earliest days in the White House all the way to his retirement.
“Mr. Allen, for whatever reason, sensed that something might become of his life even when he was washing dishes in the pantry,” Haygood said. Because of Allen’s foresight, the artifacts in the basement are in pristine condition.
Nugent believes that Eugene Allen’s life is testimony to the fact that “American history belongs not just to presidents and generals, but to proud, everyday people who have crafted their lives within the great tides of history.”
Many of the students shared with Haygood and Nugent what an unforgettable experience the visit was for them.
“Every time I would take a glance at one of the students, it filled me with the same sensation I had in 2008 when I first walked into that basement,” Haygood said.
Haygood was the first person to document Eugene Allen’s story, and one of the first people allowed to see the collection.
“I humbly think that maybe they were waiting on somebody who they could trust to tell the story,” he said.
Charles Allen is always adding new mementos to the collection, building on the legacy of his parents that has moved so many people, including the group from WC.
“I could sense that the students understood why the country—why the world—has embraced Mr. Allen’s story,” Haygood said.