MELISSA BLOCK, host:
From NPR News, this is All Things Considered. I'm Melissa Block.
MICHELE NORRIS, host:
And I'm Michele Norris. Next week, Barack Obama and his family move into the White House. He will be the first black president to live in the White House, but not the first black person to live there. Slaves helped construct the building. Black men and black women of bondage worked in the White House as servers, cooks, and maids, sometimes as property of U.S. presidents. From that shameful past arose a proud tradition - the Butler Corps. Until recently, almost all the White House butlers were black. Lynwood Westray was part of that tradition. He's 82 now. He spent 32 years as a part-time butler in the White House. I recently visited Mr. Westray in his Washington, D.C., home.
Mr. LYNWOOD WESTRAY (Former White House Butler): Because they had other cakes and they had this all prepared for each of the guests.
NORRIS: Where we sat down with the giant folder of memorabilia - a boxed piece of Tricia Nixon's wedding cake, letters and photos of the butlers in their formal wear.
Mr. WESTRAY: Those were the days we wore tails and the guests, perhaps, would be in tuxedos. And we looked better than they did. That's why they took us out of our tails.
(Soundbite of laughter)
NORRIS: At the White House, men like Mr. Westray worked behind the scenes in domestic jobs. But in black neighborhoods outside official Washington, they are pillars of the community.
Mr. WESTRAY: And then it became so people didn't understand why they were all black. It was a prestige job, and they didn't realize it. Well, the butler was an honorable job. It was a good job. And the benefits, they were there.
NORRIS: I talked with Mr. Westray in the living room of his bungalow. Even though he was wearing simple slacks and a dress shirt, he still has quite a distinguished air. His pride is evident as he talks about his White House years. He served eight presidents, going back to John F. Kennedy.
Mr. WESTRAY: I guess my 32 years of seeing everybody who was anybody from all circumstances. The Russians, the Chinese, everybody who was coming in there, you saw them.
NORRIS: You also see the presidents in moments of great joy...
Mr. WESTRAY: Well...
NORRIS: And moments of great stress. I imagine that you see a side of them that most other people never see.
Mr. WESTRAY: Yeah, true. I'll never forget this. John F. Kennedy, two days before he was assassinated, had his last party, and I served it. And that was the last time I saw him. And this was, you know, upstairs. It wasn't like he invited guests from this country or that country. It was a little private party that he had, because he knew he was going away. I'll never forget that, because that's the last time I saw him.
NORRIS: What are your fondest memories of the White House?
Mr. WESTRAY: I guess, the fondest, it had to be around '79 when the Queen and Prince Philip were here. That's the last time I saw them. After dinner, Prince Philip had gone into the Red Room. The Red Room was next to the state dining room. And he was looking around. And my buddy, Wash(ph), and I were serving liquor. We were on liquors. I was carrying the tray and the glasses. Wash was carrying the liquor. And the prince was in there by himself, which was odd, because everybody else had gone down to the other end of the building.
So I said, Your Majesty, would you care for a cordial? He says, I'll take one if you let me serve it. I said, oh, my, what do you do? I didn't do all that because I had the stuff in my hand. And he says, if you let me pour it, I'll have one with you. I looked at Wash and Wash looked at me. All right. So he poured it. You know, the one he wanted. And we took the same thing that he had. And we had our drink there together and had a little talk...
NORRIS: Oh, my.
Mr. WESTRAY: You know, while we were there. He told us if we were ever over there in London to stop at Buckingham Palace and see him. Can you imagine the prince serving you?
NORRIS: That must have been some...
Mr. WESTRAY: I enjoyed it.
NORRIS: You enjoyed a cordial with Prince Philip.
Mr. WESTRAY: Well, you know, we're not supposed to drink and carry on at that time. We're not guests. Anyway, I drank my little cordial. We all drank. And then we had our little conversation. But that was one thing I'll never forget, having been served by royalty.
NORRIS: On January 20th, Barack Obama and his family will move into the White House. Can you imagine what that day will be like for the butlers and the stewards that...
Mr. WESTRAY: Who are there.
NORRIS: ...that are working at the White House now when they greet...
Mr. WESTRAY: No, I don't have any idea.
NORRIS: This family?
Mr. WESTRAY: But I'll put it this way. A lot of black folks, especially, were wondering if it was going to ever happen. And here it is happening. And they're tickled to death. I'm surely happy. I wish I was 30 years younger, so I would be down there now when he came in. Because, let's see, I worked for eight presidents, so - and the ninth wouldn't hurt. And I would like to have been there.
NORRIS: Mr. Westray, it has been such a pleasure to spend time with you.
Mr. WESTRAY: Oh, I'm glad I was able to do something for you.
NORRIS: Thank you for your time and your memories.
Mr. WESTRAY: OK. Thank you for taking that much interest in us old butlers.
NORRIS: Former White House butler, Mr. Lynwood Westray, says he liked to serve just one more inaugural. But at 82, carrying trays and clearing dishes is hard for someone not quite steady on his feet. So he and his wife are happy to watch this one at home on their television.