Allen was born on July 14, 1919, in Scottsville, Va. His childhood occurred during a time when the state was strictly segregated. Blacks were forced to ride in the back of buses and attended poorly funded “colored” schools. They were not permitted to use public bathrooms or enter retail establishments that were reserved for white patrons. Interracial marriage was illegal and anyone with a trace of non-white blood was required by law to pay a poll tax in order to vote.
Like many blacks, Allen became a service employee, working as a waiter at whites-only resorts and country clubs. In 1952, he landed a job at the White House as a “pantry man.” The position paid him $2,400 a year to wash dishes, stock cabinets and shine silverware, but it also allowed him to witness many historical events of the 20th century.
For 34 years, Allen catered to the needs of Harry S. Truman, Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, Richard M. Nixon, Gerald R. Ford, James Carter, Ronald Reagan and their families. He never missed a day of work, and always performed his duties diligently and discreetly.
As a member of the White House domestic staff, Allen met civil rights leader Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and numerous entertainers, including Sammy Davis Jr. and Elvis Presley. Eisenhower gave him a painting. Nixon took Allen on a trip to Romania aboard Air Force One. Ford celebrated his shared birthday with Allen, and First Lady Nancy Reagan invited him and his wife Helene to attend a state dinner for German Chancellor Helmut Kohl. After Kennedy was assassinated, First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy asked Allen to attend the funeral, but he volunteered to stay at the White House to help with the meal after the service. She later gave him one of the late president’s ties.
By the time he left 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in 1986, Allen had been promoted to the position of maître d’hôtel, which is the most prestigious position among White House butlers. And on Jan. 20, 2009, when Barack Obama was sworn in as the nation’s first African-American president, Allen attended the inauguration as a VIP.
“I never would have believed it,” Allen told The Washington Post. “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.”
Although Allen often received offers to write a tell-all book or give speeches about his interactions with American leaders, he always declined. However, a Hollywood picture about his life is currently in the works. Laura Ziskin, the film’s producer, said the movie would act “as a portrait of an extraordinary African-American man who has lived to see the world turn.”
Allen and Helene were married for 65 years; she died the night before the 2008 election. He is survived by his son, Charles, five grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.