What It Was Really Like to Be a White House Butler

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.

In The Atlantic, Daphne Muse has a really terrific look at what it was like to be a black butler in mid-century Washington D.C. — “the ‘invisible’ men” who heard and saw the powers who shaped our country before and after the Civil Rights movement and are the subjects of the Lee Daniels film The Butler. Muse looks at the experiences of her father and uncle, who both worked as butlers, and examines what their experience said about race, class, and service work at the time. [Thanks to Jon Custer for the story link.]

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