Wil Haygood, Washington Post reporter, author of “The Butler: A Witness To History” the book that inspired the hit movie, “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” is enjoying both book and movie success and doesn’t mind sharing how he got there.
Haygood, shared his story about the road he took to becoming both a New York Times Best Selling author and associate movie producer of a SAG Award nominated and NAACP Image Award winning movie at the keynote address he delivered at the St. Louis Public Library’s African American History Month Celebration at St. Louis Public Library’s downtown location.
He began, “In 2008 I was on the campaign trail for the Washington Post covering events for then Senator Barack Obama. There was a rally in North Carolina. After the rally, I walked outside. I noticed three young ladies they had been inside of this rally and they were crying. And I asked them, I said, ‘Is there was anything that I can do? And are you okay?
They said, “We’re crying because our fathers have stopped talking to us because we support that candidate inside.” The three young ladies were white. The candidate, as we all know, was black. They were defying their fathers. And in the South fathers are very of mythical figures. My daddy this. My daddy that. My daddy’s gonna come and get you. They were standing up to their daddies. The three ladies who had been crying were judging the Senator, not by the color his skin, but by his character.
When I woke up the next morning I said to myself, ‘Obama’s gonna win.’ ”
The next day, when Haygood arrived back in Washington, DC he says he rushed into his editor’s office and told him that Obama was going to win the presidential election. Haygood said his editor thought that he was crazy and told him to take some time off.
Haygood insisted that Barack Obama was going to win the presidency and that he needed to do a story about someone who had worked at the Whitehouse in the era of segregation, before the passing of the Civil Rights Bills.
Haygood said he then told his editor, “Well, I am going to find a shoeshine person, a laundry person, somebody who worked at the rose garden at the Whitehouse, a maid, a butler, before 1964.”
At that point, Haygood said he called his sources in Congress and the Senate to find someone but struck out. A woman from Tampa called him out of the blue and asked, “Is this Wil Haygood?” My daughter was in Washington, DC at a dinner party and overheard somebody say that Wil Haygood was looking for somebody who worked at the Whitehouse a long time ago during the 60s. Now because I used to work at the Whitehouse I can’t give you my name. But I can tell you this, there is a gentleman who worked for three presidents, I think. I met him at the Whitehouse during the sixties and you should try to find him.”
Haygood started his search for Eugene Allen by calling all the men by that name in the Washington, DC area phone books. He finally hit gold on call number 57. He said, “I said, ‘Hello! It’s Wil Haygood of the Washington Post. I’m looking for Mr. Eugene Allen who used to work at the Whitehouse for three presidents.’ And Allen said, “You’re speaking to him…but let me correct you, it wasn’t three presidents I worked for, it was eight…Harry Truman to Ronald Reagan.”
I said, ‘Mr. Allen we are six days (because the Senator from Illinois by now had gotten the nomination). We are six days from what I think will be an historic election. I would love to come over and talk to you.’ ”
Haygood came over and interviewed Allen and his wife Helene. He said, “This man, Eugene Allen was in the Whitehouse and heard the reverberations and the echoes of the murder of Emmett Till, the murder of Medgar Evans, the rise of Rosa Parks, the rise of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the Cold War, the Vietnam War, the Korean War. He was in the Whitehouse when President Kennedy started working on the Civil Rights Bill…when President Kennedy went to Dallas and came back in a coffin. He was in the Whitehouse during the Johnson administration…the Ford Administration, the Carter administration…the Nixon Administration, the Ronald Reagan Administration.”
Haygood interviewed Allen and his wife, Helene about their life during segregation and the civil rights era while Allen served our nation’s leaders in the Whitehouse. The article, “A Butler Well Served by This Election” was published in the Washington Post on November 6, 2008, the day Barack Obama was elected.
Haygood said President Obama read the article and invited Allen, his son Charles and Haygood to the inauguration. It was the first inauguration Allen had ever been invited to in thirty-four years of service to eight presidents.
Allen passed away in 2010. Haygood said Helene passed away after their interview in 2008.
Haygood’s 2008 profile of a dedicated butler became a best selling book. Next, Hollywood came calling. Haygood’s book, and the movie it inspired, “Lee Daniel’s The Butler” were both released in August 2013.
He received an associate producer on the movie. It has grossed over $167 million world-wide, and has been nominated for SAG Awards, Golden Globes and BAFTA Awards. According to Haygood’s publisher, Simon & Schuster, has a new book in the works, a crime novel.