What It Was Really Like to Be a Black Butler in Mid-Century Washington

Lee Daniels's film The Butler has given the world a window into the reality in which the author's family lived.
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The author's father, Fletcher H. Muse, Sr., in his serving jacket (Courtesy of Daphne Muse)

For some, watching Lee Daniels’ The Butler has been an educational experience. For me, it was a trip back to childhood—the days when I was starting to recognize the ways in which privilege and power drove the Beltway, and my own family dynamics within it.

As butlers in Washington, D.C., my father, Fletcher H. Muse, Sr., and uncle, George Y. Muse, were two of the “invisible” men who heard and saw the architects of 20th century power at work. “Unc” worked under Eugene Allen, the head butler whose life formed the basis for Lee Daniels’s movie, as a contract butler for state dinners, inaugurations and other large events at the White House from the late 1950s through the first Clinton administration. They both served state dinners, cocktail parties, and soirees at embassies and in some of Washington’s opulent homes.

By day, my father worked as an administrative assistant at the Department of Defense, and Unc in the print shop at the Library of Congress. Both men were relieved to no longer be toiling on the railroad.

Servitude housed, fed, and clothed our family of seven and provided us with a most interesting lens into the machinations of history being made, distorted and destroyed. At night and on weekends my uncle and father were transformed by a black tuxedo, hand-tied bow tie and practice of protocol. From our remove, it may be easy to imagine the Beltway Butlers as shuffling servants. But these men were consummate professionals, at times knowing more about protocol than those they served.

Their work took them both into the bowels of politics and power, as they overheard decisions sealing the fates of their families, their friends, and the future of the country, including the planning of coups, sabotaging of civil rights legislation and the aborting of people’s personal dreams. Often dad and Unc knew what was going to be in the Washington Post, Evening Star or New York Times even before the president. But the job came with a protocol and requirement of discretion that mostly sealed their tongues and prevented them from speaking about what they heard, saw or were asked to do.

Through these working-class jobs, they brought the world home to us through books and periodicals we otherwise would not have known about and incredible food that the wealthy considered leftovers: huge tins of leftover crab meat, fresh caught game, and sweet treats with names that we worked diligently to master.  At our dinner table, a bottle of Rothschild’s Champagne could be served up next to curry, or a 1957 Dom Perignon paired with collard greens cooked in smoked pig knuckles. 

My cousin Lydia Muse Clemons still remembers encountering her butler father while on her lunch break one day while walking through Lafayette Park, across from the White House. “My dad was there with his co-workers, waiting to report to work.  They had on their white shirts, tuxedo pants and tie (untied around their necks).”  Tuxedos were expensive and Georgetown thrift stores were the primary source for their elegant uniforms.  “These men, especially my dad, looked so handsome and stately,” Lydia says. 

In the film, Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker), James Holloway (Lenny Kravitz) and Carter Wilson (Cuba Gooding, Jr.) make the demanding work of servitude look effortless, as was required by the rigors of the job. And the brotherly bond among the men is evident from the kitchen to the card table where they find rare respite from the demands of the day.  I felt as though director Lee Daniels, the crew, and the actors came right up in one of those Monday night poker games in our basement, as Dinah Washington’s soul poured from the hi-fi.  Dad, Unc, Mr. Lynch, and the other butlers around the table would cut the cards, talk jive, and make use of the same poker faces that were required to navigate their roles as butlers.

My father and uncle and their colleagues used to joke about what it would be like to have a “spook” in the White House. Along with jazz, hard bop, and soul piping into the sound system, collard greens would replace asparagus, barbecue sauce Hollandaise, a cure for racism would be found and Africa would be front and center in ways it never had been.

The butlers had to navigate not just racial politics but also sexual politics. Along with the normal hazards that come with carving meat with the precision of a surgeon, carrying heavy trays, and synchronizing the removal of plates from the table, these men also were on guard against the advances of white women, whose eyes and hands wandered across borders and boundaries not theirs to claim. As a child, I recall being perplexed when men like Secretary of State John Foster Dulles and nuclear scientist Glenn Seaborg—rather than their wives—called to book parties with dad.  My brother Vincent and I wondered if these men did not want their wives talking on the phone with black men.  Then again, some of these men also maintained tony pied-à-terres specifically designated for entertaining, unbeknownst to their wives, at places like the Woodner and Watergate Towers. According to stories passed along very late in life by some of the butlers, there were dinner parties held in socially safe houses where men who legislated against debauchery by day deeply engaged in it at night. At intersections like this, butlers really had to render themselves invisible, excusing themselves to cleanup duty, for example.

My family struggled with arguments, similar to those seen in the movie, about how their lives were being taken away from them. My mother went ballistic when dad informed her that a Mrs. Marshall, one of the women for whom he worked, had asked him to Miss Daisy her to her summer home in Alabama. Too much of my father’s time was being organized around Mrs. Marshall’s demands.

Unc served at the weddings for Lyndon B. Johnson’s daughters Luci Baines and Lynda Bird Johnson, and Richard Nixon’s daughter Tricia. It must have been mind-blowing in 1963, when he navigated a sea of black people who had been invited by President John F. Kennedy to celebrate the centennial of the Emancipation Proclamation. While Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. strategically declined the controversial invitation, in the mix were politicians, members of the black leadership, and cultural icons including Urban League Director Whitney Young, Dean of the Black Press corps Simeon Booker, poet Langston Hughes and writer James Baldwin. There also were some powerful black women in attendance including publisher Eunice Johnson and civil rights lawyer Constance Baker Motley who would go on to be appointed a Federal Judge by President Johnson in 1966.

But one of the highlights in Unc’s life occurred while serving a luncheon in the early 90s.  Over the rims of the crystal wine glasses arose the distinct voice of a black man calling out “Unc.” As he looked up, he saw that one of our childhood friends, Clement Price, was in attendance at the luncheon. Price, then a professor at Rutgers and Director of the Institute on Ethnicity, Culture, and the Modern Experience gave him the ubiquitous “gimme some skin bro’” as they embraced. My father and uncle were proud to see more blacks begin to attend state dinners and other events at the White House, cocktail parties and embassy soirees.

I remember dad coming home so excited about the fact that the Modern Jazz Quartet had played at a cocktail party; being in the moment when Joe Zawinul brought the house down at the Newport Jazz Festival where dad served a series of parties at Oatsie Leiter’s summer home; or passing petit fours at an opening for Lyrical Abstractionist Sam Gilliam.  My father was beside himself when he learned what huge sums white folk were paying for a black man’s art.  During one of the parties he served at Mrs. Lieter’s Georgetown home, Leontyne Price was in attendance.  Price presented my father with a copy of the program from the opening of the Met at Lincoln Center in 1966.  Printed on silk, the program notes Price’s performance as Cleopatra and the choreographic debut for Alvin Ailey. It is now a treasured family heirloom.

The pay itself was a crucial component of our family’s well-being. Both Unc and Daddy were members of the Private Butlers Association (PBA), which set the pay scale for the contract butlers. In 1967, they were paid $10.00 an hour for the first three hours and $20.00 an hour thereafter. According to San Francisco City College professor of economics Dr. Marc Kitchel, “In today’s economy that $10.00 would equate to an hourly wage of $65.81.”  While not the norm, one-hundred dollar tips were not uncommon. It was a crucial supplement to my father’s salary as an administrative assistant for the Department of Defense—on that alone he could never have supported our family. My father, unlike Unc, didn’t work at the White House, where, as the film points out, white staff were paid more than blacks, and there were no tips. 

At many venues, along with 25- to 100-dollar tips, bottles of premium spirits also were offered up to butlers like my father and uncle, who were valued for their ability to rescue a potential culinary disaster or recover a breach in protocol. Rich white folk were not serving soul food at these parties.  On more than one occasion dad had to rescue a turtle soup, prepare a Beef Wellington or reconstruct a Lobster Newburg because the cook was drunk or simply did not show.  Many of the butlers also were master carvers who could turn a watermelon into a basket of fruit or peel the skin back on a turkey, carve the meat into thin slices and replace the skin, making it appear as though the meat wasn’t even carved.  My father also had the kind of palate where he could taste something once and replicate it, a brilliant gift.  I’ll never forget my first ever experience with curry; he made it for my eleventh birthday.  He served it with every condiment imaginable including kumquats and Major Grey Chutney. The bliss of that dish still lingers on my palate.

My father leveraged his work in other, more strategic, ways as well, giving his children opportunities that might otherwise have been closed to them.  In 1967, my father called in a favor from California Republican Congressman William Mailliard, a friend of Supreme Court Justice Earl Warren.  Within six months of the request, my brother Lowell Vincent Muse was appointed as a page at the Supreme Court.

But my parents also raised us to question the way black people were treated in our society. Both my parents held that racism was the pathology of white people— and becoming them was not a goal.  The narrative on race was super charged in our home: Dad was as staunch an integrationist as Mom was a segregationist.  My mother still washes the colored clothes before the whites.  During the summer of ‘64, I was the help working for Congressman Millard.  My mother was livid; but I just wanted to earn enough money to return to college and graduate.

Just as Gaines was caught off guard by his son’s turn towards activism, my father was not prepared for his children’s political fervor.  In 1965, I became deeply entrenched in movement politics. As a student at Fisk University in Nashville, epicenter for sit-ins, I combined my scholarship with activism and attended meetings and workshops led by Diane Nash, Reverend Jim Lawson and foot soldiers from SNCC. I wish the film had made it resoundingly clear that political progress on civil rights didn’t come from politicians simply having a change of heart regarding their servants. (Moments in the film such as where Reagan tells Gaines, “You’re just like family” still send me into a tailspin, recalling the patronizing context.) Rather, bold strategists and community organizers, and the activism of ordinary people, are what made that possible.

 My parents’ troubles were just beginning. A couple of years after graduating from Fisk in 1967, I became deeply involved with Drum and Spear Bookstore founded by SNCC legends including Ralph Featherstone, Charlie Cobb, Courtland Cox and Judy Richardson. I was assigned my own FBI agent, Jim South. South used to follow me from Drum and Spear to my apartment in Adams Morgan in his unmarked car.  What I came to appreciate about being escorted to and from work was that I was often carrying thousands of dollars in sales from the store through a neighborhood rife with drug dealing, robberies and assaults.  

Then my brother Leonard’s name showed up in a 1969 report from the House on Un-American Activities, and I was summoned in 1970 to testify before the Grand Jury.  My parents were terrified by the idea of jail and raising my bail. Two agents showed up to question dad about my activities. After I moved to Arizona in late 1970, a white hippie mail man, not in uniform, delivered my diploma and Scrabble set to my parents’ home.  The FBI failed to return my books on Marcus Garvey and WEB Dubois, but not my letters from Shirley Graham Dubois, Mrs. Amy Jacques Garvey or Helga Rodgers, the wife of J.A. Rogers.

Service work—so vital to the next generation’s success—ultimately took its toll on the men of my family. The protocol and discretion, wearing the masks, and, of course, the working of two jobs came at a high cost:  Dickel, Jack Daniel’s and--when he could get it--Georgia Moonshine tortured and consumed my dad. But not before he got to strike his own thunder.

In 1981, dissatisfied with the Washington of Ronald Reagan and the continuing prominence of New World Order architect Henry Kissinger, for whom he adamantly refused to serve parties, Dad left DC. He returned to his hometown of Cuthbert, Georgia. In the early 90s, he was elected to his own seat of power, as a commissioner for Randolph County and a board member for the Georgia Preservation Society. There he removed the mask and was able, finally, to speak for himself. He could serve the public, rather than serve those who served the public.

For several years Jack Valenti, who left Lyndon Johnson’s White House to become president of the Motion Picture Association of America, hosted an annual film screening and dinner party for the members of the Private Butlers Association and their wives at the MPAA headquarters in DC. I think Valenti and my father would have been most pleased with this film portraying these men who served and witnessed so much history. 

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Daphne Muse is a writer and poet based in California. She is the former director of the Women’s Leadership Institute at Mills College.

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