Allen, an African-American, grew up in Virginia during segregation. Working in the White House, he witnessed many of the pivotal historical moments of the 20th Century and was on hand in 2009 for the swearing-in of America's first president of color: Barack Obama.
Allen started at the White House in Harry Truman's last year: "In 1952, a lady told him of a job opening in the White House. 'I wasn't even looking for a job,' he says. 'I was happy where I was working, but she told me to go on over there and meet with a guy by the name of Alonzo Fields.' Fields was a maitre d', and he immediately liked Allen. Allen was offered a job as a 'pantry man.' He washed dishes, stocked cabinets and shined silverware. He started at $2,400 a year. There was, in time, a promotion to butler. 'Shook the hand of all the presidents I ever worked for,' he says.
Allen retired in 1986 after having served eight presidents. His tenure spanned many great moments in history, both for the country and himself. Perhaps his highest moment happened when he and his wife Helen attended a State Dinner as guests of the Reagan: "First lady Nancy Reagan came looking for him one afternoon, and Mr. Allen wondered whether he or a member of his staff had done something wrong. She assured him that he had not but also told him that his services would not be needed at the upcoming state dinner for German Chancellor Helmut Kohl. Mr. Allen tensed, wondering why. "She said, 'You and Helene are coming to the state dinner as guests of President Reagan and myself,'... Mr. Allen thought he was the first butler to receive an invitation to a state dinner."
Read both WaPo articles linked above for more details on Allen's amazing career and life. It is a fascinating read about a fascinating man and his journey.