A Washington Tradition Back to Segregation

April 5, 2010 

Last week Eugene Allen died at age 90. The White House butler for 8 presidents from 1952 to 1986 started out as a “pantry man” and dishwasher moving up to Maitre d’. Allen probably took to his grave a host of inside stories of White House goin’ ons, juicey tidbits whispered in confidence among the colored help. No doubt Allen was often an active planner and participant in a White House tradition taking place today, the Easter Egg Roll, the biggest annual White House gathering. He was there when Mamie Eisenhower decided it was time to desegregate the event.

African American children were not allowed inside the White House gates, a tradition dating back to 1878 when Rutherford B. Hayes– the same President who ended Reconstruction–hosted the first White House Easter Egg Roll. Occurring on Easter Sunday a workday for most of Washington’s Black servants who even if possible couldn’t afford to take off and chaperon their children to the public event. Two years later the Smithsonian began what became another tradition believed to be a direct response to the White House practice making African-American children persona non grata.

To this day on Easter Monday D.C.’s children of color still gather at the Smithsonian National Zoo where “ice cream, food and Easter egg hunts await them.” As a child growing up here I remember Washington as a largely segregated city in the 1950s. Like Eugene Allen I’ve seen much change. African Americans coming and going through White House gates are a common occurrence–only now their presence is no longer restricted to the back of the house.

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