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Butler who saw racial history being remadeFor more than three decades Eugene Allen worked in the White House, a black man unknown to the headlines. During some of those years, harsh segregation laws lay upon the land. Mr Allen trekked home every night, where his wife, Helene, kept him out of her kitchen. At the White House, he worked closer to the dirty dishes than the large desk in the Oval Office. Mrs Allen didn't care; she just beamed with pride. President Truman called him Gene, while President Ford liked to talk golf with him. He saw eight presidential administrations come and go, often working six days a week. "I never missed a day of work," he says. His is a story from the back pages of history. A figure in the tiniest of print; the man in the kitchen.He was there while America's racial history was being remade: the Little Rock school crisis, the 1963 March on Washington, the cities burning, the civil rights bills, the assassinations. When he started at the White House in 1952, he couldn't even use the public restrooms when he ventured back to his native Virginia. "We had never had anything," Mr Allen, 89, recalls of black America at the time. "I was always hoping things would get better." In its long history, the White House — just note the name — has had a complex and vexing relationship with black Americans. "The history is not so uneven at the lower level, in the kitchen," says Ted Sorensen, who served as counsellor to President Kennedy. "In the kitchen, the folks have always been black. Even the folks at the door — black."Mr Sorensen tried to address the matter of African-Americans in the White House, but in the end, there was only one black man who stayed on the executive staff at the Kennedy White House past the first year. "There just weren't as many blacks as there should have been," says Mr Sorensen. "Sensitivities weren't what they should have been, or could have been." In the mid-1950s invitations to the White House were still fraught with racial subtext. When the Daughters of the American Revolution refused to allow pianist Hazel Scott to perform at Constitution Hall because of her race, many letters poured into the White House decrying the DAR's position. First lady Bess Truman was a member of the organisation, but made no effort to get the DAR to alter its policy.The first black to hold a policy or political position in the White House was E. Frederick Morrow, a former public relations executive with CBS. Dwight Eisenhower's presidential campaign operatives were so impressed with Mr Morrow's diligent work during the 1952 campaign that they promised him a White House executive job if Ike were elected. Ike won, but Mr Morrow ended up being placed at the Department of Commerce. He felt slighted and appealed to Republican friends in New York to force the White House to make good on its promise.Before he landed his job at the White House, Mr Allen worked as a waiter at a resort in Virginia, and then at a country club in Washington. He and Helene, 86, are sitting in their living room. A cane rests across Helene's lap. Her voice is musical, in a Lena Horne kind of way. They met in Washington at a birthday party in 1942. He was too shy to ask for her number, so she tracked his down. They married a year later. In 1952, a lady told Mr Allen of a job opening in the White House. "I wasn't even looking for a job," he says. "I was happy where I was, but she told me to go on over there and meet with a guy by the name of Alonzo Fields."Mr Fields was a maitre d', and he immediately liked Allen. He was offered a job as a "pantry man". He washed dishes, stocked cabinets and shined silverware. He started at $US2400 a year. There was, in time, a promotion to butler. "Shook the hand of all the presidents I ever worked for," he says."I was there, honey," Helene reminds him. "In the back maybe. But I shook their hands, too." She's referring to White House holiday parties. They have one son, Charles, who works as an investigator with the State Department. "President Ford's birthday and my birthday were on the same day," says Mr Allen. "He'd have a birthday party at the White House. Everybody would be there. And Mrs Ford would say, 'It's Gene's birthday, too.' " And so they would sing a little ditty to the butler. And the butler, who wore a tuxedo to work every day, would blush. "Jack Kennedy was very nice," he says. "And so was Mrs Kennedy."He was in the White House kitchen the day JFK was slain. He got a personal invitation to the funeral, but volunteered for other duty: "Somebody had to be at the White House to serve everyone after they came from the funeral." The whole family of President Jimmy Carter made Mrs Allen chuckle: "They were country. And I'm talking Lillian and Rosalynn both." It comes out sounding like the highest compliment. First lady Nancy Reagan came looking for him in the kitchen one day. She wanted to remind him about the upcoming state dinner for then German chancellor Helmut Kohl. He told her he was well ahead in the planning and had already picked out the china. But she told him he would not be working that night. "She said, 'You and Helene are coming to the state dinner as guests of President Reagan and myself.' I'm telling you! I believe I'm the only butler to get invited to a state dinner."President Kennedy started with two African-Americans, Frank Reeves and Andrew Hatcher, in executive positions on his White House staff. Only Mr Hatcher, a deputy press secretary, remained after six months. Mr Reeves, who focused on civil rights matters, left in a reshuffle. Lyndon Johnson devoted considerable energy and determination to civil rights legislation, even appointing the first African-American to the Supreme Court. But it did not translate to any appreciable number of black staff working for him. Colin Powell would become the highest-ranking African-American of any White House to that point when he was named President Reagan's national security adviser in 1987. Condoleezza Rice would have that same position under President George W. Bush. The butler remembers seeing Mr Powell and Dr Rice in the Oval Office. He was serving refreshments. He couldn't help notice that black people were moving closer to the centre of power, closer than he could ever have dreamed. He would tell Helene how proud it made him feel.Mr Allen was promoted to maitre d' in 1980. He left the White House in 1986, after 34 years. President Reagan wrote him a sweet note; Nancy Reagan hugged him. Interviewed at their home last week, Mr and Mrs Allen speculated about what it would mean if a black man were elected president. "It'd be really something," said Mr Allen. "We're pretty much past the going-out stage," his wife said. "But you never know. If he gets in there, it'd sure be nice to go over there again." Mr Allen has pictures of every president he served on a wall in his basement. There's a painting President Eisenhower gave him and a picture of President Ford opening birthday gifts, Mr Allen hovering nearby.They talked about praying to help Barack Obama get to the White House. They would go vote together. On Monday, Mrs Allen had a doctor's appointment. Mr Allen woke and nudged her once, then again. He shuffled around to her side of the bed. He nudged his wife again. He was all alone. "I woke up and my wife didn't," he said later. Some friends and family members rushed over. He wanted to make coffee. They had to shoo the butler out of the kitchen.The lady he married 65 years ago will be buried today.The butler cast his vote for Obama on Tuesday. He so missed telling his Helene about the black man bound for the Oval Office.News Story

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