By Shana Russell
Wil Haygood: The Man Who Discovered The Butler
In August of 2013, I found myself at the Regal Theatre in Union Square to view the critically acclaimed film The Butler. The crowded theater was silent as the image of a Southern lynching opened the film. It was an ambitious project. A fictional account of over fifty years of history through the eyes of its protagonist, Cecil Gaines, a White House butler. I was moved by the film’s juxtaposition of black radicalism and domestic labor. Cecil Gaines represented the living embodiment of W.E.B. DuBois’ double consciousness.
As he was told by one of his mentors, “We have two faces. Ours and the one we put on for white folks.” The inspiration behind the film, directed by Lee Daniels, and its screenplay, written by Danny Strong, was a short article published in the Washington Post. The article, written by reporter Wil Haygood, narrated the story of Eugene Allen, who served eight presidents during his 34 years as a White House butler. Recently, Haygood traveled to Newark to share the incredible story of Eugene Allen at the Paul Robeson Campus Center in celebration of Black History Month at Rutgers-Newark. While there, he described the journey from a simple article in celebration of the hidden history of African Americans in the White House prior to Barack Obama to award winning summer blockbuster.
Haygood was inspired to write the article while covering the first Obama presidential campaign. He foresaw Obama’s victory and wanted to mark the historic moment with a story that revealed the hidden history of African Americans in the White House by profiling someone who had worked there before the dawn of Civl Rights. After a series of phone calls and chance encounters, Haygood found himself at Allen’s front door. After a charming afternoon with Allen, and his wife Helene, Haygood literally stumbled into a historical archive that had never been seen before. And now, thanks to the article, and later a book and award winning film, Allen’s story will continue even though he and his wife are no longer with us. As Haygood told his story, to a full room of faculty, students, staff, and members of the community, it was evident that he would be forever changed by his chance meeting with Allen. In one simple article, the reporter transformed those who would traditionally exist on the margins of history into witnesses to that history. And, in turn, we were all given the opportunity to witness that history as well.