Allen’s life was the inspiration for the 2013 film The Butler.
Allen was born in Scottsville, Virginia. He worked as a waiter for many years, in “whites-only resorts and country clubs”, including Homestead resort in Hot Springs, Virginia, and a club in Washington.
He started in the White House in 1952 as a “pantry man”, a job which involved basic tasks such as dish washing, stocking and cleaning silverware. Over the years Allen rose in his position, becoming the butler to the president.
Allen was particularly affected by the death of President Kennedy in 1963. According to his son, “My father came home late on the day that President Kennedy had been shot. But then he got up and put his coat back on. He said, ‘I’ve got to go back to work.’ But in the hallway, Allen fell against the wall and started crying. That was the first time in my life I had ever seen my father cry.” He was invited to the funeral, but chose to stay at work to prepare for the reception, because “Someone had to be at the White House to serve everyone after they came from the funeral.”