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Opinion

Early African-American workers in DC were more than silent witnesses

To understand America’s past-to-present we would do well to recognize and know more about those African-Americans edited out of the nation’s narratives – from my great-grandfather E.A. Savoy to Eugene Allen, the White House butler fictionalized in the film 'Lee Daniels' The Butler.'

By Lauret E. SavoyOp-ed contributor / September 13, 2013

Oprah Winfrey and Forest Whitaker appear in a scene from 'Lee Daniels' The Butler,' based on the life of White House butler Eugene Allen. Op-ed contributor Lauret E. Savoy writes: To think of the early African-Americans workers in the nation's capital 'as silent, behind-the scenes witnesses is to consider the past through a narrow frame. These people served, guarded, and...literally crafted the stages upon which history was made.'

Anne Marie Fox/The Weinstein Company/AP

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South Hadley, Mass.

Yes, the butler did it. But not as others have written of "Lee Daniels’ The Butler,” which topped the box office for more than two weeks in August. The movie’s fictionalized account was inspired by the life of Eugene Allen, the butler who worked 34 years in the White House, serving eight presidents from Harry Truman to Ronald Reagan.

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The journalist who brought Allen’s experiences to light, Washington Post reporter Wil Haygood, wrote that “[h]is 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.”

African-Americans have always been there, in those rooms of executive power. A few recorded their experiences. Alonzo Fields penned “My 21 Years in the White House” after retiring as chief butler in 1953. Lillian Rogers Parks’s account of her family’s five decades as domestic staff (1909 to 1960) led to the celebrated 1979 TV miniseries “Backstairs at the White House.” Elizabeth Keckley described her time as Mary Todd Lincoln’s dressmaker and confidante in “Behind the Scenes.” Paul Jennings came to the White House in 1809 an enslaved servant; later, as a free man, he wrote “A Colored Man’s Reminiscences of James Madison.”

Most didn’t write their lives. Public memory has largely forgotten them. “The Butler” prompts me to relate the story of one man who worked for 21 secretaries of state under 14 presidencies. A man whom Franklin Delano Roosevelt chauffeured to the White House for congratulations on his retirement at the age of 77, after one secretary of state had waived federal law and another, Henry Stimson, subverted it to keep him past the mandatory retirement age. A man whose life and contributions are little known today, yet whose story reveals the troubling ties between African-Americans and the nation’s capital.

Edward Augustine Savoy was born a free person of color in Washington City, as the nation’s capital once was called, in 1855. His father was a leading caterer and public waiter to federal officials. His mother aided the Underground Railroad. After the Civil War, both parents worked for Secretary of State Hamilton Fish, who hired a 14-year-old Edward Augustine as a page in 1869. Thus began a career that would span 64 years.

E. A. Savoy was privy to the paper trails of rifts and wars between nations. He witnessed the assassination of President James Garfield. He delivered ultimata and passports to diplomats, becoming known as the State Department’s international “bouncer.” In two such instances he tricked successive Spanish ministers at the outbreak of the Spanish-American War into accepting their own passports – so they could then be asked to leave the country. He carried home the treaty from Paris that ended that war, witnessing and sealing other treaties. He kept ambassadors of warring nations apart when their visits to the State Department coincided.

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