For any American that understands the complex history of this country, you feel it. Especially when you look at the drawings of how this home was built and you see many slaves who couldn’t enter the building working to create the building. Some of those folks could be my ancestors and there is a profound power and sense that comes with the fact that we are the first African American family to occupy this residence over the years.
—FIRST LADY MICHELLE OBAMA
President Obama’s historic 2008 election marked an important turning point in American history and was hailed by many as a crowning achievement of the civil rights movement. Not much more than forty years before his election, African Americans were legally discriminated against in the Jim Crow South; about a hundred years before that, slave pens were set up in Lafayette Square within full view of the White House. Now, the nation’s first African American first family are being served by a mostly African American butler staff.
When they first moved in, the Obamas were circumspect around the residence staff. Some observers believed they may not have been entirely comfortable having butlers wait on them. The first couple are, of course, deeply aware of their unique historic status. Not only is Obama the first African American to be elected president, but—as he noted in a much-heralded speech addressing race during the 2008 primary season—he is also “married to a black American who carries within her the blood of slaves and slave owners.” Michelle Obama’s great-great-grandfather Jim Robinson was a slave; her great-grandfather Fraser Robinson was illiterate when he was a teenager, though he later learned to read. Indeed, some of Mrs. Obama’s family members had jobs that were quite close to those of the residence workers—including her maternal grandfather, Purnell Shields, who was a handyman in Chicago, and one of her aunts, who was a maid.
Since his election the president has mostly tried to avoid getting mired in race relations, and his aides have had little to say about the relationship between the household help and the first family. But Chief Usher Stephen Rochon, who retired in 2011 as the first black chief usher, says that he noticed a special kind of understanding between the African American staff and the Obamas because “they’re from the same culture.” He cited the “sense of pride” among the residence workers “that this country had grown to this level to have a black president.”
For Desirée Rogers—now the CEO of Johnson Publishing, publishers of Jet and Ebony magazines—being the first African American social secretary, for this particular first family, had a special significance. “On Inaugural Day, what was most compelling to me is that I looked at all these gentlemen preparing for the arrival of the first African American president—I could not help but be taken at how they looked. They reminded me, quite frankly, of my grandfather, who obviously was a pillar in our family.” She said she wishes he could have been there to see it.
Rogers often heard the butlers say they never thought they would see the day when they’d be serving the first African American president. They may have even tried a little harder than usual. “I could just tell the pride that they had in preparing for this first family to come in. It was a very touching moment for me as we prepared the house for their arrival and as I saw all of these gentlemen working so diligently to make sure that everything was just perfect when they arrived from the parade.”
Lonnie Bunch, the founding director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture and a member of the Committee for the Preservation of the White House, said he would be surprised if Michelle Obama never talked to the African American staff at the White House about their special shared circumstances. He’s quick to point out that the fact of the Obamas’ race alone doesn’t necessarily mean that their relationship with the African American staff is any closer or more personal than those of their predecessors. “But there’s an obvious understanding and appreciation of who these men and women are,” he said. “I think there’s a feeling, as Michelle has said, this could have been me or this could have been members of my family.”
Operations Supervisor Tony Savoy, who retired in 2013, insists that Obama’s arrival at the White House did not affect how he conducted his job. “I’m going to give my best, all I can, to the person, regardless of who it is,” he said. “I couldn’t give no more to him than I’d give to a lady president or to another white president. It wouldn’t make no difference. I would still give my 110 percent all the way across the board.”
PRESIDENT OBAMA’S TWO White House victories are especially remarkable given the troubled relationship between the White House and slavery. There was a thriving slave trade in Washington in the nineteenth century, though there were also many free people of color: by the time of the Civil War, census records show 9,029 free blacks and 1,774 slaves living in Washington, D.C. Back in 1792 when construction of the executive mansion began, the new capital city was a primitive swamp, far removed from any major eastern hubs—and carved out of the slave states of Maryland and Virginia. In November 1800, when John Adams moved in, one-third of Washington’s population was black and most of them were slaves. African Americans—free and enslaved—helped build much of the nation’s capital, milling the stones used in the pillars and walls of the White House and the U.S. Capitol. These workers were leased from their masters to work at government quarries in Aquia, Virginia, paid only in food (pork and bread) and drink (daily rations of one pint of whiskey each). Little is known about them beyond a list of first names—“Jerry,” “Charles,” “Bill”—that appears in government records.
It’s hard to imagine what the grounds of the White House looked like as it was being constructed. A stone yard was erected on the northeast side of the mansion with dozens of large sheds housing worktables used for cutting stone. Close to the new walls of the house were two tall tripod rigs for hoisting the stone blocks into place. The rigs supported huge pulleys, some as high as fifty feet, which loomed over the massive construction site. Despite the grandeur of its architecture—it was likely the largest house in the United States until after the Civil War—the White House would remain a relatively unrefined place to live for decades after its first stone was laid.
Once the mansion was occupied, slaves were brought to work in the White House by every Southern president until 1860, including Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and Andrew Jackson. In 1830, during Jackson’s administration, the U. S. Census recorded fourteen slaves living on the premises, five of them under ten years old. “In essence, the African American fingerprint has been on the White House since its inception,” Lonnie Bunch points out. Because the country’s earliest presidents had to pay the residence workers themselves, they had much less help; Jefferson only had about a dozen servants. Of the dozen, only three were white; the rest were African American slaves from Monticello, Jefferson’s Virginia home.
Many of the early Southern presidents tried to cut costs by replacing salaried whites and free blacks on the staff with their own slaves. President James Madison also relied on slaves from his home, Montpelier. His valet, a slave named Paul Jennings, eventually bought his freedom and went on to write the first ever memoir of life in the executive mansion.
President Andrew Jackson, a Tennessee slaveholder, decided to save money when he moved to the White House by replacing several white servants with slaves from his Tennessee home. The slaves who were visible to the public wore elaborate blue coats with brass buttons and yellow or white breeches. Most of them lived in crowded dorms in the basement or the attic, with its steep ceiling and poor lighting. The basement rooms were off of a forty-foot-long kitchen with giant fireplaces. During the first half of the nineteenth century, salaried servants and slaves slept on worn-out cots and mattresses.
By the time Zachary Taylor took office in March 1849, Northerners were expressing outrage about the practice of slavery. In a bid to save money, he supplemented the four servants he had on staff by bringing about fifteen slaves, some of them children, from his home in Louisiana, but he kept them largely out of view for fear of the public’s reaction. Slavery was finally abolished in the capital city in 1862.
The roles of residence workers evolved gradually. In 1835, the principal gardener was the only person listed in a managerial role in the Federal Register. Congress created the official post of “steward” in 1866, when President Andrew Johnson hired William Slade, an African American who was a personal messenger for President Abraham Lincoln, making him the first official manager of the residence. The job description is in many ways akin to that of the modern-day chief usher, supervising all executive mansion staff and overseeing every public and private event. Because Slade was responsible for all government property in the mansion he was bonded for thirty thousand dollars—an astronomical sum in the nineteenth century. Slade’s small office was located between two kitchens in the basement. It had freestanding cupboards full of silver and porcelain and big leather trunks with china and flatware dating back to James Monroe and Andrew Jackson that were still being used in dinner service after the Civil War. Slade personally kept the keys to the trunks and checked off each piece as it was washed and put away after formal dinners. The White House would not see another African American chief usher until Admiral Stephen Rochon took the post in 2007.
More than a century after President Jefferson trimmed his expenditures by replacing white servants with black slaves, Franklin D. Roosevelt brought white housekeeper Henrietta Nesbitt from Hyde Park to help control the first family’s wild spending. Not long after the inauguration, Nesbitt helped the first lady reorganize the household staff. Eleanor Roosevelt made the decision to fire all the white household staff (with the exception of Nesbitt) and keep only the African Americans. Yet, given her generally outstanding record as an advocate of civil rights, her reasons were surprising: “Mrs. Roosevelt and I agreed,” Nesbitt wrote in her memoir, “that a staff solid in any one color works in better understanding and maintains a smoother-running establishment.”
Before this dismissal of the white staff, there were separate dining rooms for white and African American workers. When African American staffers accompanied the president to the Roosevelts’ home in Hyde Park, New York, they were not allowed to eat in the dining room designated for the help, according to Alonzo Fields, an African American butler at the time. Instead, they were told to eat in the kitchen. Because of this practice, Fields wrote in his memoir, “I had my reservations concerning the White House as an example for the rest of the country.”
AS THE DECADES passed, African American staffers would capitalize on their prestigious positions. Even though they were servants, they were servants in the most important home in the nation. Lynwood Westray started his thirty-two-year career as a part-time butler at the White House in 1962. Born and raised in Washington, D.C., he remembers making just six dollars a week working as a grocery store clerk in 1939. Now ninety-three, he recalled his time at the White House as he sat in the three-bedroom bungalow in northeast Washington that he bought for $13,900 in 1955—a few years after he and his wife, Kay, were married. Outside, four lanes of traffic whiz by. (“People are crazy now, driving each other off the road!”) In his entryway, framed pictures of Abraham Lincoln and Barack Obama hang side by side; a Michelle Obama doll sits on a side table. Two framed Christmas cards from the Johnsons and the Carters hang in the dining room.
Westray was a member of Private Butlers Incorporated, a group of African American White House butlers who helped one another find jobs in private homes on the nights when they were not busy at “the house.” They were capitalizing on a growing need, Westray said. People in government would often call the maître d’ at the White House and ask for names of butlers to work their parties, giving them a chance to have world-class service (and bragging rights) at private events. So when he wasn’t working his full-time job at the postal service (he worked his way up from clerk to foreman), or working part-time at the White House, Westray served members of Congress, ambassadors, and other Washington power brokers at Georgetown dinner parties.
“They were tickled to death. They would introduce you, not as Sam, or John, or Charles, but as ‘mister.’ I was Mister Westray!”
Westray says that serving as a butler has traditionally been considered “a black job.” He said his friends didn’t realize how impressive his position was “until they found out that we were making all [that] money outside!” Because of their White House connection, Westray said, “The butlers had it made in this town!”
During one of our first interviews, Westray’s eyes lit up when his wife, Kay, walked slowly into the room supported by her walker, wearing bright red lipstick and a blue pantsuit. Their affection for each other was contagious; they teased one another constantly. When asked what their secret was to such a long marriage, Kay said: “You love a little, you cuss a little, and you pick up and you start all over again.”
Lynwood chimed in, beaming, “The first fifty years are the hardest.”
Kay passed away in May 2013, after sixty-five years of marriage, and now Westray says he hardly knows what to do without her. He talks about kissing her forehead right before she passed away, not with sadness but with a sort of wonder. “Death is a part of living,” he says. He keeps a laminated copy of her obituary in his shirt pocket and her ashes in an urn on the fireplace mantel, above her Christmas stocking, which was still hanging there on a spring day a year after her death. But he’s doing his best to move on. “I’m learning how to be single. I’m cooking, washing clothes, cleaning, all of those things I never did,” he says sadly. When he cooks for himself, he makes Kay’s favorite recipes, like fried apples, to prove to his family that he can manage on his own. But he won’t even consider dating: “I’m too old!”
For the first ten years, Lynwood Westray worked at the White House part-time, supplementing the income from his main job at the post office. After retiring from the post office in 1972, the chief usher invited him to join the regular force. “My wife didn’t want me to because of the hours.” But the Westrays’ only child, Gloria, said that her father’s job “opened up doors for them.” She loved telling people that her father worked at the White House—and found that it added to her own self-esteem. “I had standards that were higher,” she says now. “I couldn’t be out being mischievous.”
As a teenager, Gloria says, she once came home from school to find the FBI waiting for her. “My mother was livid. Apparently this guy that I had been dating, he was a little older, and he was involved in something that wasn’t good and the FBI was questioning me, and I was like, ‘I honestly don’t know anything.’ You could imagine when my dad came home.” She promised her father that she would never see the man again; his reputation—and their family’s livelihood—were at stake.
She said she was often asleep when her father came home from work, but she would press him the next morning at breakfast about the glamorous dinner he had served the night before. Usually, the most she could get out of him was the menu.
Though Westray kept his secrets throughout his career, as he aged, he began sharing his stories. During one interview, he went to a closet to retrieve mementoes, including photos of himself serving drinks at a 1970 picnic on the South Lawn, a photo of him with Reverend Billy Graham after one of his Sunday prayer sessions at the White House, and even a jewelry box containing a small piece of hardened vanilla cake from Tricia Nixon’s wedding.
Westray happily recalls one night in 1976 when something extraordinary happened. It took place in the Red Room, with its ornate carved furniture and walls lined with gold-embroidered scarlet twill satin, nestled between the Blue Room and the State Dining Room on the State Floor. On the night in question, Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip were guests at the White House, there to celebrate the bicentennial of the American Revolution. Westray, dressed in his tuxedo uniform, and his friend and frequent working partner Sam Washington, happened upon Prince Philip sitting alone late at night in the Red Room.
“Your Majesty, would you care for a cocktail?” Westray asked, presenting a tray of cocktails to the prince.
“I’ll take one . . . only if you let me serve it,” Philip replied.
Westray glanced at Washington. “He couldn’t believe it. No one had ever asked us that before.” Westray and Washington accepted the invitation, pulling up chairs, in shock, and allowing him to serve them a drink. He can’t remember what they talked about or what they drank, but that night the Duke of Edinburgh wanted to feel normal, if only briefly.
“He wanted to be one of the boys, that’s all.” Westray paused for a moment. “I was served by royalty. It blows your mind.”
In 1994, more than three decades after he first walked through the mansion’s imposing wrought-iron gates, Westray retired from the White House. He might have stayed longer, but after learning he needed triple bypass surgery, he did what he thought was best for the dignity of the executive residence and for the staffers who make it tick: “I would have been a disgrace to the men serving in the White House if I dropped a platter on someone,” he said. “It would be better for me not to be there.”
WESTRAY WASN’T THE only butler to see a less-than-formal side of the Duke of Edinburgh. Alonzo Fields, who served as a butler and maître d’ from 1931 to 1953, described a similar encounter a quarter century earlier. It happened while he was serving the royal couple and their entourage breakfast at Blair House, where most foreign dignitaries stay. After then-Princess Elizabeth and her staff were seated, no one waited for her husband’s arrival to start eating. After the royal party had “nearly finished their melon,” the duke rushed in, saying, “‘I’m afraid I am a little late.’”
“He was in his shirtsleeves with his collar open and he grabbed a seat before anyone could seat him,” Fields, who died in 1994, recalled in his memoir. “The princess did not stop eating her melon, although the others stood while the duke was taking a seat. Seeing the duke there in his shirtsleeves with his collar open gave me the feeling that this was the behavior of a commoner and not what you would expect from royalty. And I admired his audacity, for I know what a blasting I would have got if I had been visiting with my wife and had come out in my shirtsleeves. . . . It was pleasing to find the duke to be a human being who, no doubt, felt more comfortable in his shirtsleeves.”
Prince Philip wasn’t the only member of the royal family who surprised the White House staff with an endearing moment of informality. Once Queen Elizabeth II shocked the staff by undressing herself after a state dinner—and leaving her diamond tiara, a hefty diamond necklace, and other priceless jewels strewn about the room.
A GENERATION YOUNGER than Fields, Herman Thompson was destined to work at the White House. Though he worked full days as a supervisor at the Smithsonian Printing Office, his father worked at “the house” as a part-time butler (and one of the founders of Private Butlers Incorporated) and his uncle worked there as a houseman. He was friends with Maître d’ Charles Ficklin, and with Eugene Allen, who lived nearby. He even used to get his hair cut by Preston Bruce, who worked as a barber when he wasn’t escorting dignitaries to meet the president. “All of them knew me before I knew myself,” Thompson says of the close-knit group of African American butlers.
The staff watched each other’s backs, both personally and professionally, Thompson recalls. “Everybody wanted to support Charles, then it was John, then Eugene,” he said. “The main objective was to help out the maître d’, because we had black maître d’s and you wanted to make sure they looked good.” In turn, the maître d’s kept a Rolodex of reliable part-time butlers, chosen because they knew how to do everything from setting a table flawlessly to making a world-class martini.
“You didn’t have to teach them anything, you didn’t have to tell them what to do,” said Thompson, who started working at the White House in 1960 and left at the end of President George H. W. Bush’s term. Now seventy-four, Thompson still sets the family table for dinner every night for his wife of more than fifty years.
At state dinners Thompson was in charge of serving wine—with a different vintage selected to accompany each new course. He had to make sure each bottle was open and ready to pour when the food was served. “That might sound like something simple,” he said, but not when you had ten people to a table “and you had to keep that going throughout the night.” Christmas parties, he recalls, were especially difficult—in part because it fell to him to carve a huge steamship round roast.
But Thompson always considered the job a privilege, and one that could disappear in an instant. If a butler chatted too much with the guests—after all, you never knew who you were talking to—or scraped the plates too loudly in the adjoining pantry, he might never be asked back. Guests “were supposed to be given the best service that you could get in the United States,” Thompson said. “There were people from all over the world watching.”
EVEN MARY PRINCE couldn’t believe how her luck had changed. Less than a year after being handed a life sentence for killing a man in the small town of Lumpkin, Georgia, the African American inmate, who was in her midtwenties, was trading her Georgia penitentiary cell for the governor’s mansion, where she would be responsible for taking care of Governor Jimmy Carter’s three-year-old daughter, Amy.
“When I first got the call to go to the governor’s mansion, I didn’t know what to expect,” Mary Prince told me. “After I went there, Amy and I—we hit it off the very first day. I mean we really hit it off the very first day. From that day on, it was me and Amy.”
Prince was part of a prison trustee program that assigns prisoners to work at the governor’s mansion in different capacities: some do yard work, others cook, and some even take care of the family’s children. Prince had no idea at the time that her close ties with Amy would catapult her to an even more bizarre reality: four years living and working in America’s most famous house.
Prince’s troubles had begun one night in April 1970 when her cousin got into a fight with a man and another woman outside a bar. According to Prince, she was trying to wrestle the gun away from them when it accidentally went off. But another eyewitness said that Prince grabbed the gun and deliberately killed the man in defense of her cousin. Prince stands by her innocence. “I was in the wrong place at the wrong time,” she insists. “I got caught up in a situation that I did not understand. It took six years and ten months for them to clear my name.”
At the time, Prince was ill-served by the justice system. She met her court-appointed attorney for the first time when she entered the courtroom for her trial. He advised her that if she pled guilty, he would get her off with a light sentence, but the plan didn’t work. Mary Fitzpatrick, as she was known at the time, was sentenced to life in prison. (She took back her maiden name in 1979 after officially separating from her husband.)
Yet before the year 1970 had come to an end, Prince had been selected by Rosalynn Carter to care for her daughter at the governor’s mansion. Mrs. Carter was convinced that the young woman had been unjustly convicted. “She was totally innocent,” Rosalynn Carter says. Forever loyal to their daughter’s nanny, the Carters have practically adopted her as a member of their family. “She had nothing to do with it,” Rosalynn said firmly, sounding agitated by the question decades later.
When Jimmy Carter won the presidential election in 1976, Prince’s work release was terminated and she was sent back to prison—her good luck seemingly coming to an end. But Mrs. Carter was so confident in Prince’s innocence that she wrote to the parole board and secured her a reprieve so that Amy’s beloved nanny could work for them at the White House. Even more remarkably, the president had himself designated as Prince’s parole officer. Ultimately, after a reexamination of her case, Prince was granted a full pardon.
The former first lady, who has been by her husband’s side as he’s pursued so many humanitarian projects during America’s longest post-presidency, says that Prince was convicted because of her skin color. “It was tough days, it was tough at home,” she said. When President Harry Truman desegregated the armed forces, she recalls, “we came home to the desegregated South”—but racism was by no means obliterated. “You just didn’t mention the race issue. It was easy to see why Mary was picked up.” President Carter, who took heat for the decision to bring Prince to the White House, agreed with his wife’s assessment. “Hers was a story all too common among the poor and the black before some of the legal reforms were imposed on our nation,” the president wrote in one of his memoirs.
During her first six months as the country’s most famous nanny, Prince said she got about fifty letters a day, and people pretending to be long-lost relatives called to plead with her to ask the president for favors. “I was worldwide news,” she said, not sounding too upset by her stardom at the time. “Going from prison to the White House.” But the press couldn’t believe that the Carters would let a convicted murderer take care of their little girl, and not all the attention was kind: the story got so much traction that Saturday Night Live even devoted a skit to it, with actress Sissy Spacek playing a young Amy Carter and comedian Garrett Morris in drag playing Mary.
The media firestorm couldn’t have been easy, but Prince took solace in her faith. “I’m a Christian and I prayed about everything,” she told me. “I asked God if I did anything wrong to please let me know and forgive me. And I guess that’s why the good Lord blessed me with the good life that I had since then. It was a real blessing for a prison inmate to go to the governor’s mansion and get close to the family.”
Even within the White House, things weren’t always easy. Prince had a hard time making friends with the residence staff, who viewed her as an outsider—and one with a controversial past. Some of them resented her because she was brought in by the president and got to live in her own apartment on the third floor. Others, evidently, envied her position of power: if Prince decided she wanted to cook a Southern-style dinner for the first family, she could send all the cooks home at a moment’s notice. She didn’t have to play by anyone’s rules as long as she kept the Carters happy. And they loved her. One evening when she was walking by the pool on the south side of the West Wing, she happened upon the first lady doing laps. “Come on in!” Mrs. Carter shouted. Prince wasn’t in a bathing suit. “Just dive in in your uniform!” the first lady said, laughing. So she kicked off her shoes and jumped into the pool in her starched white nanny uniform and showed the first lady what she had learned in her swimming class. (Amy loved to swim so she started taking lessons herself.) Prince says that evening, “just me and the first lady together out there swimming,” is her favorite memory of her time in the White House.
But rumors flew backstairs and some former staffers even believed she was guilty of murder. “That’s a good way to get rid of your husband,” one worker joked, unaware that she’d never been accused of killing her husband.
Prince paints a different picture of her time in the residence and says that the luxuries of living in the White House never fazed her. “None of that was exciting to me.” Instead she focused on her work, and on getting her two sons settled after relocating them from Atlanta to an apartment in Suitland, Maryland, a working-class suburb of Washington. When she was done taking care of Amy at night she took a taxi to see her boys, who were looked after by her sister during the day. She’d help them with their homework, make sure their school clothes were ready, and take a taxi back to the White House late at night so that she could be up early with Amy the next morning. She never asked the Carters if her sons could move in, even though she missed her boys terribly.
“I never thought it was appropriate for me to have my family living in the White House under their roof. That was my job. I was able to pay for them to be close to me and have their own place.” She valued the boundary between her work life and her life at home with her boys. When she was through working, she says, “I could always go home to them.”
She never thought race was much of an issue in the White House until an usher came to her with a message that made her furious. “My kids are always dressed neatly,” she says, “because I made sure of it.” But one of her sons worked at a Georgetown tennis club, and sometimes when he visited Prince at the White House he would arrive still wearing his tennis shorts. One day, an usher approached her: “Mary, I got a phone call that your kids were coming in here with raggedy clothes on,” the usher told her. “But don’t worry about it. It’s gossip. I’ve never seen those kids come here not dressed neatly.”
To Prince, it was a dual insult: calling her African American children unkempt, and implying that she wasn’t doing her job as a parent. “I guess they thought I was dirt,” she said. She never found out who it was that lodged the mean-spirited complaint. “I think it was somebody who was just prejudiced against the idea that President Carter got me out of prison and brought me to the White House.”
But Prince rose above it all, finishing her time at the White House with dignity and maintaining her warm relationship with the family that saved her from prison. Today she lives just three blocks away from the Carters in Plains, Georgia; she still sees them almost every day when they’re in town—and takes care of their grandchildren.
USHER NELSON PIERCE knew he had a problem—and it had to be fixed immediately.
When he first got to the Usher’s Office as a young man, in 1961, he was responsible for bringing residence staff personnel files up to date. This meant looking at what every worker was paid. “I was amazed at the salaries,” he said. The African American staff were making significantly less than their white colleagues.
The timing of the revelation was terrible. In his first State of the Union address, President Johnson declared “an unconditional war on poverty,” at a time when the poverty line was accepted to be around $3,000 a year or less (around $23,550 in today’s dollars). “Our joint federal–local effort must pursue poverty, pursue it wherever it exists—in city slums and small towns, in sharecropper shacks or in migrant worker camps, on Indian Reservations, among whites as well as Negroes, among the young as well as the aged, in the boomtowns and in the depressed areas,” the president said in his January 8, 1964, address before a joint session of Congress.
It turns out that poverty existed right under the president’s nose. The higher-paying jobs at the White House—ushers, florists, executive chefs, head housekeepers, carpenters, and plumbers—were viewed as more professional, and were given to white workers. The traditional domestic jobs, like butlers and maids, were filled mostly by African Americans and paid far less. (As a young usher, Pierce was making almost six thousand dollars a year, twice as much as the underpaid new hires.) Everyone on staff was paid less than they would have been at an equivalent job in the private sector, but overall the white staffers fared far better.
On January 9, Pierce told Chief Usher J. B. West that they needed to talk. The president had hired two new people who fell below the poverty line. “Before the press finds out that we have poverty cases working in the White House,” Pierce said urgently, “you better up the salary of the two new maids we just hired at $2,900 a year.”
West knew the salaries—in fact, he’d hired the maids himself—but it hadn’t occurred to him that the media could seize upon this information to label the president a hypocrite. West raised the two maids’ salaries immediately.
It wasn’t lost on Pierce that it took a public relations scare to force West’s hand. “The residence staff, as dedicated as they were to every president that they worked for, it was amazing to me that they weren’t paid more than what they were paid.”
Curator Betty Monkman wouldn’t have been surprised by the pay discrepancy. Almost as soon as she came on board, in 1967, she recalls, she sensed an undercurrent of racism—“this Southern thing,” she called it—beneath the surface bonhomie of the White House. For example, she could not believe that everyone called Doorman Preston Bruce by his last name. “He was a very distinguished man, he had a great presence about him,” she said. “When I first came there everybody would call him ‘Bruce,’ so I just thought ‘Bruce’ was a first name. Then, after a while, I realized it was his last name. I just was appalled that I had been calling him that.”
STOREROOM MANAGER BILL Hamilton insists that he was the one who led the revolt to get equal pay for the underpaid African American staff. That runs contrary to the impression created by Lee Daniels’ The Butler, the film loosely based on Butler Eugene Allen’s life, which shows the title character going into the head Usher’s Office demanding a raise. By most accounts, Allen was too shy and too respectful of the institutional hierarchy to be so brazen.
Hamilton, however, is neither. He was born eight blocks from the White House. His mother stayed at home to raise her ten children. After living on Capitol Hill, she told him, she never wanted to live in a white neighborhood again. Hamilton was just twenty years old when he started as a houseman, during the Eisenhower administration. The Eisenhowers ran the White House like a military operation. He remembers vacuuming after the tours ended for the day, trying to erase any footprints from the rugs before Mamie Eisenhower could see them. When a guest walked through the Ground Floor, the houseman would turn the vacuum off and turn his face toward the wall. (When President Kennedy saw the workers behaving this way, he asked a staffer, “What’s wrong with them?”) Hamilton worked nine to five in the storeroom to support his seven children (at one point four of them were in college at the same time), then drove a cab after work until eleven o’clock at night. “I worked like a dog,” he said. “But I always made sure I was home for the weekends.”
Whenever a new president takes office, Hamilton says, his political advisers tend to treat the residence staff with disdain. “The West Wing staff just think they are better than you. Then they learn their lesson after they get there: it takes all of us to run this show for the president.” But Hamilton resented being mistreated, and he had to find a way to express his frustration.
“I’ll never forget when we went up to see J. B. West,” Hamilton recalled at his home in a quiet, middle-class retirement community in Ashburn, Virginia, about an hour outside Washington, D.C. He made his move in the late 1960s, around the time of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination and the days of riots that followed. Washington was on fire as angry protestors, enraged by King’s murder and the inequality they saw around them, tossed Molotov cocktails and looted stores. Some came within just two blocks of the White House.
Inside the gates, Hamilton was furious. Everyone else seemed to be getting a raise, he said, except for the African Americans on staff. Inspired by the civil rights protestors, he gathered a handful of his fellow housemen—the workers in charge of vacuuming and heavy-duty cleaning—and made an announcement.
“They’re having a state dinner tonight and we’re not working.”
There was a long pause as his colleagues mulled it over. They had already agreed to help that evening. (Staffers from the different shops were often asked to help out at events, as they had already been cleared through security.)
“What do you mean we’re not working? We’re going to lose our jobs,” one of them said.
“This is what I’m trying to tell you all. If we all learn to stick together, there’s nothing they can do.”
“They can’t bring somebody in off the street” to work the event, he argued, because they wouldn’t have clearance.
Hamilton finally convinced his coworkers, and together they went to see Chief Usher J. B. West.
West was furious. “Are you the spokesman for the group? ” he asked Hamilton.
“You could say that,” he replied.
West was as “red as a beet,” Hamilton remembered, laughing. For once, he had his boss over a barrel.
“You expect me to put on that little black bow tie, white shirt, and suit? If somebody drops something I’ll go pick it up?” West asked the group.
Hamilton did not waver: “Sir, I don’t give a damn what you do when I leave here.”
Contrary to the portrait in The Butler, it wasn’t the butlers who questioned the salary discrepancies; according to Hamilton, they “didn’t make any waves.” In fact, Hamilton was disappointed that they didn’t join him—it was the butlers who had the real power among the White House staff because they worked in the closest proximity to the first family. If they got up the courage to tell the president and the first lady that they were being underpaid, Hamilton was sure something would be done to correct it. But not only did the butlers refuse to join him in protest, some were angry at him for potentially putting their own jobs at risk.
“We were not active in the civil rights movement. Our role was to serve the president and his family. Period,” said former Butler and Maître d’ George Hannie. In 1963, Hamilton said he was the only residence worker who went to hear Martin Luther King Jr. deliver his famous “I Have a Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial during the March on Washington. He describes the experience as “thrilling.” But by following his conscience and demanding action years later he was angering his colleagues. He says, “I had more of my people mad with me” for demanding a raise. “But I had kids to take care of. I’m going to make sure my kids are going to be better than what I am. I didn’t care what it takes, it was going to happen. I went home and told my wife one day, ‘I’m tired of these people [white management paying African Americans less]. I might not have a job, but from now on I’m taking no stuff from nobody down there.’”
When Hamilton and his fellow residence workers finally stood up, however, justice prevailed. Two days after they sat out that state dinner, the black staff members got their raise. Hamilton thinks it was because J. B. West could see the writing on the walls beyond the White House. “He knew, with everything going on on the outside, he couldn’t get out of it. I knew I had him when I had him. Wasn’t no doubt in my mind.”
Even though he’s still angry about the blatant racism at the White House, Hamilton talks about his fifty-five years serving eleven presidents with a sense of awe. “When I walked into the White House for my interview, it felt like the first day of my life,” he said. He had never been to the White House, even for a public tour. “I just couldn’t believe it, and my parents couldn’t believe it. It just doesn’t happen!”
EUGENE ALLEN WAS certainly more careful about rocking the boat than Bill Hamilton.
When Allen’s only son, Charles, was in Vietnam, he dreaded the prospect of fighting on the ground. “The only time I ever asked my father to do me a White House favor was when I asked him to ask President Johnson to get me out of this,” he recalls.
In his letter he begged his father out of sheer desperation: “Go to the man, get me out of the infantry. I will stay in the war, but just get me out of the infantry. We’re walking ten to twenty miles a day. I’m starving to death.” Charles added: “I’m not a physical coward, Dad, but can you see if Mr. Johnson can get me in an aviation unit?”
When Charles heard back from his father, it was not the response he was hoping for. “He wrote me back and said something to the effect that if the Kennedys were still in power he thought he could do something. If Bobby was still around.” But the Johnson White House was a different story. “I don’t know these people that well,” he said. “So you’re going to have to stick it out.”
WHITE HOUSE BUTLERS, maids, pot washers, and housemen were considered to have good, solid jobs in Washington’s African American neighborhoods in the 1960s and 1970s. “There was always a sense of elegance, a sense of recognizing that this is a special occupation,” Lonnie Bunch said. He attributed the sense of pride and professionalism in these trades to the fact that many families passed the work on from generation to generation: “The father teaches the son who teaches the grandson.”
For generations of black Americans, a job at the White House was more than just a job. “They recognized that their service was about more than them. They really felt that they were carrying a double burden. They had to work hard to keep their jobs, [but] they were also carrying [certain] expectations and attitudes toward their race. They wanted to make sure that they were at the top of their game.”
The fact that the White House butlers were mostly African Americans sometimes raised questions. Usher Chris Emery remembers when Soviet political leader Mikhail Gorbachev made his historic visit to the White House in 1987 and they had to scramble at the last minute to protect the two world leaders from a sudden downpour on the South Lawn.
“[Chief Usher] Gary Walters saw all the butlers standing there with umbrellas and said, ‘I can’t have all these African Americans holding umbrellas for these world leaders. It will look terrible.’” So Walters asked Emery and another white usher to go outside and hold umbrellas over Reagan and Gorbachev so that the White House would not look like “the last plantation,” as Emery put it.
Butler Herman Thompson, a member of the first fully integrated high school class in Washington’s public schools, was on the front lines of desegregation. The discrimination and outright hatred he saw in his white classmates made him “very rebellious as a person,” he said recently over lunch at a downtown Washington restaurant not far from where he grew up. “It was not pleasant.”
Thompson saw the same kind of racism in the White House that he did in the rest of the city, and he tried to fight it, but more surreptitiously than Bill Hamilton. “Many times, when African American people were there as guests, we would make it a point to make sure that they were looked after, that they would have the same type of attention as everyone else had,” he said. As late as the Nixon administration, butlers still wore tails for state dinners. As more black musicians like Duke Ellington and the Temptations started playing at the White House, however, and more African American guests appeared, the butlers were told to stop wearing tails to avoid exacerbating the appearance of a social divide between the workers and the guests.
“We used to joke that they changed the tails because the world was changing. A lot of times people who would come in, they wouldn’t know who the butlers were and who the guests were.” He chuckled. “You had some very distinguished-looking gentlemen working there and people would make predecisions about who was who.” Thompson said he was mistaken for a guest a few times.
Even though he had seen things slowly improve, he was shocked when he met Admiral Stephen Rochon, the new chief usher, at Eugene Allen’s funeral. “You figured it would be a cold day in hell before any black person would get the job!”
Rochon, who was born in 1950, grew up in New Orleans at a time when 10 percent of Americans still couldn’t eat at Woolworth’s counters. He still vividly remembers an incident that occurred when he was thirteen, when a red 1957 Chevrolet with a big Confederate flag in its back window pulled up to him while he was walking to a Boy Scout meeting. The car was full of white teenagers who shouted “nigger” and threw a Coke bottle at him. Because of that painful experience, he said, he told his White House staff he would always listen to their concerns about discrimination. “I didn’t want someone else to hurt the way I did.”
He did occasionally hear charges of racism. The only African American working in one of the shops came to Rochon one day and told him he thought he was being talked down to because of his skin color. Rochon immediately got the man’s supervisor in his office and told him he wouldn’t stand for it. “Word travels fast at the White House,” he said. “If it was with one department, believe me, every department knew about it.”
There’s a divide between workers like Bill Hamilton and Herman Thompson, who saw clear racism at the White House and felt compelled to combat it, and Eugene Allen, Lynwood Westray, and James Ramsey, who made do with the way things were.
Butler Alvie Paschall, now ninety-three years old, is a lot like his friend Lynwood Westray. He was just four years old when he started picking cotton in Henderson, North Carolina. He and his six brothers and sisters worked straight through the Great Depression, and he says his parents taught them to be respectful of authority. Reluctant to share too much, he represents an older generation of African Americans who were taught not to be “mouthy,” he says, because that could cost them their jobs. “You’re there for a particular thing: you’re there to serve. Your job comes first.”
Dressed nattily in suspenders and a cream-colored silk tie, Paschall told me that he carried that lesson with him all the way to the White House, where he started his career during the Truman administration. When there was a fight, or a private conversation he knew he wasn’t supposed to hear, he had to decide quickly whether to leave the room discreetly or stay and pretend he hadn’t noticed. “I did all of those things!” He laughed.
Westray is incredibly forgiving. The segregationist Alabama governor George Wallace, whose “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever” speech was a black mark on the politics of the 1960s, sought to redeem himself in the eyes of the public after surviving a 1972 assassination attempt. Westray recalls that he also tried privately to win over the African American residence staff during visits to the White House. “After George Wallace got shot you would think he was one of our buddies,” Westray said, shaking his head. “Every time he’d come down to the White House, the first thing he’d do was come back and want to be back there with us, back there in the Butler’s Pantry.” The assassination attempt “changed him completely,” Westray said. “The Lord works in mysterious ways. It took a bullet to straighten him out.”
Instead of snubbing Wallace, the African American butlers sat around and joked with him. It was not about holding grudges or about forgetting past offenses, it was about doing their jobs—which sometimes meant biting their tongues.
Butler and Maître d’ Eugene Allen’s son, Charles, said that his father experienced more racism at the high-end Kenwood Country Club in Bethesda, Maryland, outside Washington, D.C., where he shined members’ golf shoes, than he ever did at the White House. Not because the racism didn’t exist, but because no one wanted to get on the bad side of the president.
“People are going to be careful about the way they treat you because of the way these first families feel about these people. You can see yourself sailing out of the gate if you’re disrespectful.”
Lynwood Westray agrees. The White House “was one place where you didn’t have all that foolishness,” he says. “Even though we were all black butlers, people thought more of us because there we all were meeting kings and queens.”
Outside the White House was a different matter. Westray loves to recount a story about his old friend Armstead Barnett, who worked and lived in the White House when Franklin Roosevelt was president. “One day he caught a cab to go home and he told the guy, ‘Take me to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.’ It was a white cabdriver and he didn’t want to take him. ‘There are no blacks living at the White House,’ the driver told him. But he finally took him, and when they got to the gate Armstead got out to go in, everybody knew him, he didn’t even have to show his identification.” Westray smiled. “When he went in the gate and didn’t come out, the cabdriver was still sitting there wondering, ‘Where in the hell is that guy going?’”
President Kennedy shared a crowning moment of the civil rights era with Doorman Preston Bruce. Less than three months before his assassination, Kennedy asked Bruce to join him in the third-floor Solarium and listen to the throngs of people gathering to hear Martin Luther King Jr.’s historic speech at the Lincoln Memorial. They could hear the crowd singing the civil rights anthem, “We Shall Overcome,” as they stood there together—Bruce the son of a sharecropper and Kennedy the scion of America’s royal family. The president gripped the windowsill so hard that his knuckles turned white. “Oh, Bruce”—he turned to his friend—“I wish I were out there with them!”
The respect Kennedy had for the African American residence workers was returned. Eugene Allen never missed a day of work in thirty-four years and never complained about his coworkers or his bosses, the president and first lady. His son, Charles, said the only time he ever saw his father cry was when he was putting his coat on to go back to work at the White House after Kennedy was assassinated. “It depressed him terribly at that moment,” Allen said thoughtfully of his father. “But, to use military terminology, he was a soldier. You buck up. The only tragedy that he didn’t recover from was when my mother passed. He couldn’t pull himself back up from that.”
Allen, who passed away in 2010, was the last person who would have ever wanted a movie made about his life. By all accounts he was a shy and gentle man who would never have agreed to talk to the media were it not for prodding from Helene, his wife of sixty-five years. She said she wanted people to recognize Eugene’s service to the country.
“When he walked in that door, he never complained about his coworkers, he never talked about the principals he worked for in a bad way. He kept that stuff close to his vest. That was our livelihood.”
James Ramsey was another residence worker who shared that attitude. He grew up working in tobacco fields in North Carolina, sometimes helping to serve lunch in his high school cafeteria “just to give me a plate of food to eat.” He came far in life and was grateful for the opportunity to work in “the house.” Ramsey said he hated to hear stories of butlers going directly to the chief usher to complain about working conditions or their peers. “We didn’t have no problem. All of us stuck together.”
He also said that he never saw any racism, or he chose to rise above it. “People have been very nice to me since I’ve been coming up. Because I used to do the part-time catering and meet a lot of people. Segregation?” he asks. “It’s over with—done.”
One thing that may have helped Ramsey weather the indignities of segregation was his healthy sense of humor. Chef Frank Ruta remembers Ramsey joking openly about race, poking his head into the second-floor family kitchen to ask Ruta, who is white, how he wanted his coffee: “Do you want it like me, or do you want it like you?”
Yet James Ramsey conducted himself with pride and dignity, and he recognized the momentous change that the 2008 election brought to the White House. What was it like to be a black man working for the first African American first family?
“It was beautiful. It was beautiful.”
ZEPHYR WRIGHT WAS truly a part of the Johnson family. Hired by Lady Bird Johnson when she was still a home economics student at a Texas college, she cooked for the Johnsons for twenty-seven years in Texas and in Washington, D.C., where the Johnsons brought her to live with them at the White House.
As they drove through the segregated South on their way to Washington, Lady Bird stopped the car at a hotel to look for a place to stay the night. She refused to stay in a hotel if Zephyr could not also stay there.
“Do you have rooms for tonight?” Lady Bird asked at one hotel.
“Yes, we have a place for you,” the woman behind the desk told her.
“Well, I have these other two people,” Lady Bird replied, gesturing toward Zephyr and another African American who worked for the Johnsons.
“No. We work ’em but we don’t sleep ’em,” the woman replied.
Lady Bird was disgusted. “That’s a nasty way to be,” she said over her shoulder as she stormed out.
After that humiliation, Wright wouldn’t drive back to Texas until a decade later. The journey was one factor that informed the president and the first lady’s zeal for civil rights legislation. After President Johnson pushed the Civil Rights Act that overturned so-called Jim Crow laws through Congress in 1964, Wright agreed to visit the state where she was born. “It’s very different now,” Johnson reassured her. “You can go any place you want to go; you can stop any place you want to stop.” LBJ was proud that the historic legislation that he spearheaded would have a direct impact on his friend’s life.
Johnson looked to Zephyr Wright as a kind of sounding board for his efforts on behalf of civil rights. During his vice presidency, he asked her for her feelings about Martin Luther King Jr.’s March on Washington. As president, when he appointed Thurgood Marshall as the first African American Supreme Court justice, he rushed to tell Wright the news. Johnson was persistently insecure about whether African Americans appreciated the reforms he enacted on their behalf, and sometimes complained to Wright about it: “I can’t see how they can’t see what I’m trying to do for them.” Since his death, it has been alleged that Johnson used the word nigger even as he fought to pass civil rights legislation. One Johnson aide told me that the president did use the racial slur when he was expressing his frustration with certain African American civil rights leaders who wanted bolder reforms. “They were just being so wretched, making it harder for him,” the aide said. For some, incremental change was not enough.
One frequent White House guest of Johnson’s was Georgia senator Richard Russell, a mentor of Johnson’s in the Senate but also a leading opponent of the civil rights movement. At first, Zephyr Wright knew him only as a visitor. “He was a very nice person” behind closed doors, she said. As the civil rights battle played out in public, however, she saw Russell more clearly. “When I read about and heard about the things he was doing and saying in Congress, then I got a different feeling about him.” But she never let her feelings show. “I felt, ‘Here I am; I’m working for Lyndon B. Johnson. These are his friends. I must accept them the way they are because he accepts them. There is nothing else I can do about it.’”
Many of those who worked closely with the Johnsons had no idea that he would be announcing his decision not to seek reelection on the night of March 31, 1968. Social Secretary Bess Abell found out when she turned on the TV. Wright was at home too, and she cried when she heard her longtime boss say he would be leaving the White House. She knew this would mark the end of her time with the Johnsons: Washington was home to her now, and she wanted to stay.
Wright admired Johnson, both for his civil rights reforms and for the sheer effort it took to push them through Congress. “He had always been such a fighter,” she said. Politics was his “whole life,” she recognized, and she was convinced that he gave it up because he felt his presidency’s greatest accomplishments were being overshadowed by the albatross of Vietnam.
Johnson’s frustrations were no secret among the residence workers. Once, around the time of his announcement, Dog Keeper and Electrician Traphes Bryant walked into a room just as Johnson was railing about the war. “They shot me down. The only differencebetween the Kennedy assassination and mine is that I am still alive and feeling it,” he lamented.
To Wright, Johnson seemed at peace with his decision to leave Washington. “At last we are going home,” he said to Wright the day after his announcement. “Are you going with us?”
“No, I’m staying here,” she told him.
He was stunned. “It won’t be the same without you,” he said, sadly.
Wright was sad too, and in a way she felt abandoned by the president’s decision. “To me it was just like losing a family. But it was what he wanted to do.”
After he went back to his ranch in Stonewall, Texas, Johnson suffered from major heart problems and he fell into depression. His daughter Luci would call to check on him and see if she could help. “There’s nothing you can do,” he told her. “I just miss some of my creature comforts.” He especially missed the custard that his mother and Zephyr made for him.
“Maybe I could help,” she offered.
“No, you can’t. Your mother doesn’t cook. My mother’s dead, and Zephyr got uppity and left me,” Johnson complained.
“Zephyr got uppity and left you?” Luci repeated back to him, aghast. It seemed absurd for her father, who was a champion of the civil rights movement, to be angry at Wright for pursuing her dreams and staying where she felt most at home. “You spilled your life’s blood trying to give her more opportunities in life, and then when you left Washington she chose to stay in that community because she found them and discovered them and was able to enjoy a great deal more opportunity in Washington, D.C., than she would have in Texas.”
Her father recognized that he was being selfish, but he said he still missed her custard and comfort food. Luci offered to help. “Daddy, Zephyr told me that I could either get out of her kitchen or learn how to cook. So what is it that you want that she used to make for you? Because I can make it and I’ll drive down from Austin every day.”
The former president went through a litany of foods, asking if she could make each one. When she said yes, “all of a sudden I went up in the world. It meant a lot to me. Though I’m sure it didn’t mean much to his cardiologist.”
IN 1959, JAMES Jeffries was just seventeen years old when he joined a family tradition and started working in the White House kitchen. His uncles Charles, John, and Sam Ficklin were never far away if he needed them. “When I went to work down there, they used to give me a five-gallon bucket of ice cream every day and I ate ice cream all day long. They were trying to fatten me up!”
His job was to put out the desserts: “They didn’t have all of these fancy desserts back then, they only had vanilla ice cream and we’d sprinkle some chocolate on top. I had fun working.” He worked in the kitchen for about a year before he moved upstairs to become a pantry helper.
Jeffries, now seventy-four, was born in Virginia. His mother had to drive from their home near Warrenton to give birth to him at the Freedmen’s Hospital, which provided medical care to the African American community in the area. He was aware that the lingering racism of the time also existed inside the White House. “Back in the day white folks always thought they were superior to black folks,” Jeffries said during an interview in his Washington row house. “I would not let nobody talk to me any kind of way.”
At the end of each week, Jeffries had to give Executive Chef Henry Haller a voucher with his hours to sign so that he could get paid. “Some part-time chef came in and he looked at my sheet and saw that I was making more money than he made,” Jeffries said. The newly hired white worker went to Chief Usher Gary Walters and asked how an African American pot washer could be making more money than he was.
Jeffries was furious when he learned about the complaint. The answer was simple: “I was putting in more hours. There were a lot of times when I’d be working two or three hours after they’d all gone home.” He approached Haller and said, “Henry, how would you feel if you had a young guy come in starting at the same salary as you? I’ve been working here years before this guy was even thought of. I don’t want to watch my pay go backward.”
Haller replied: “You’re right about that.”
Jeffries remembers the scene from decades ago vividly. “It was funny, that day we had some mats on the floor that were about an inch thick or so and he stood on the edge of the mat rocking back and forth and said ‘Jimmy, let me think about this.’ He walked over to where the oven was and he said, ‘Jimmy, how do you figure you have the right to talk to me like you’re talking to me?’”
“I put my pants on the same way you put yours on. Why shouldn’t I talk to you? I’m telling you the way I feel,” Jeffries replied.
Haller looked at him and said, “Jimmy, you aren’t going to ever have to worry about your money. Not as long as I’m here.” And he was as good as his word.
THE WHITE HOUSE has long been used to showcase American talent. The Kennedys invited the American Ballet Theatre to perform in the East Room, and when the Clintons were in office, Eric Clapton, B. B. King, and Yo-Yo Ma all performed there.
In 1969, twenty-three-year-old Tricia Nixon invited the Temptations, the chart-topping Motown group, to perform. Jeffries remembers how the members of the band lingered in the Old Family Dining Room with the serving staff when they weren’t onstage, because “they could relate to us and have a personal conversation.”
“I got to see them, I got to shake hands and party with them,” Jeffries says. “They didn’t stay out in the parlors, they came in the back because at the time most all of us in the back were black,” he said. “James Brown and the [Famous] Flames—they all came back there.” The residence workers made the stars more than welcome: “Whatever food we’d have back there, they’d have that food and drinks and stuff.” That night in 1969, while they were chatting, the band invited Jeffries to bring his children to come play at the pool at their hotel in the Washington suburb of Rockville, Maryland. “I didn’t, that’s the only thing I regret. I just got busy.”
Otis Williams, the last surviving original member of the legendary Motown group, told me that they made it a rule not to talk politics when they performed at the White House. “Our mind-set is just to entertain. We don’t go there with politics in our mind. We strictly go there to perform.”
Williams does not remember the specifics of that night in 1969—he has performed at the White House at least half a dozen times—but he does remember watching the African American staff at work. “They didn’t show any disgust about the way they were treated. They were consummate professionals.” While he and his bandmates had certainly experienced racism outside the White House, the singer recalled, he never felt it when he performed there.
Williams says that performing in front of President Obama was a special honor: “We never would have imagined—in our lifetime anyways—[that we would] see a black man be president.”
For Jeffries, having the Obamas in the White House makes him want to keep working: “That just makes me feel like, ‘Okay, I’ll go to work as often as I can.’”