WASHINGTON — Eugene Allen, who worked for more than three decades as a White House butler -- some of those years during an era of brutal segregation when he often had to use back doors despite his employer's rarefied address -- sat in the shadow of the Capitol dome Tuesday and watched Barack Obama become the first African American president of the United States.
"I never would have believed it," said Allen, 89, sitting in an invitation-only area. He wore a black cashmere coat purchased for the occasion, a checkered scarf and a Sinatra fedora. "In the 1940s and 1950s, there were so many things in America you just couldn't do. You wouldn't even dream that you could dream of a moment like this."
Allen received his invitation from the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies after the Washington Post published an article about him in the wake of Obama's election. The report chronicled Allen's White House career, which began during the Truman administration and ended during the presidency of Ronald Reagan, and told of his 65-year marriage to Helene.
The couple had planned to go vote for Obama together. But a day before the election, Helene, 86, died in her sleep. On election day, Allen went to his voting precinct alone.
The invitation to the swearing-in surprised him. "I've served a lot of presidents," he said, "but I've never been to an inauguration."
Allen, accompanied by his son Charles and Charles' wife, Ortaciana, was part of a historic crowd, estimated at more than 1 million.
"You have millions of people, like my father, who toiled and went unrecognized," said Charles Allen, 62. "He gave the first families his very best. And yet, he saw my mother go to Woodward & Lothrop where she couldn't try on a hat because of her color."
The son continued: "Now, in our family, we always thought he was extraordinary, and some of the first families thought he was extraordinary. But I don't think in his lifetime he expected this -- to be invited to a swearing-in."
"Amen to that," the White House butler said.
"My wife would have really enjoyed being here," he said as he waited for the official program to begin. Then, in a near-whisper, he added: "Yes indeed, she would have enjoyed it."
A moment later, his voice back above a whisper: "We were so very excited and happy about Obama. Happy for him and his family."
Then some of the figures the White House butler had seen over the years on the job -- serving them tea or cookies or champagne at state dinners -- began to come into view.
"Oh, my," he said, "there's Colin Powell."
"I knew that man right there pretty well," he said, nodding at former President George H.W. Bush, whom he got to know when Bush was vice president.
"There's Jimmy Carter," he said. "He's looking good too. Took me with him over to Camp David once. When he came into the dining room there -- they had given me the day off when I went with them there -- he pointed to an empty seat and said to me, 'Who's sitting here, Gene?' And I said, 'No one, Mr. President.' And he said, 'Good, I'll sit right here by Gene.' "
Then President-elect Barack Obama came onto the stage.
"That's the man," the butler said, nodding. "Whew. I'm telling you, it's something to see. Seeing him standing there -- well, it's been worth it all."
And then, in a moment upending the arc of American history, Obama was sworn in, becoming, before the eyes of millions and a White House butler, president of the United States of America.
When the 44th president of the United States finished his inaugural address, Eugene Allen -- his eyes glistening, his son's eyes glistening, his daughter-in-law's eyes glistening -- summed it up:
"I've heard quite a few speeches in my life. But none like that. It was some kind of beautiful."
Haygood writes for the Washington Post.