'The Butler' hits home for Chicago siblings

Brother and sister say work by uncle, father at White House opened doors for future generations in family

In the hit movie "Lee Daniels' The Butler," there's a scene in which lead character Cecil Gaines is trying to get a job on the White House service staff and he's interviewed by the head butler, an African-American man.

Chicago siblings Loretta Fields and Clinton Fields believe that the head butler character is based on their uncle, Alonzo Fields, the first African-American to have that job in the White House. Fields worked there for 21 years, from the Hoover to Eisenhower administrations, and hired Eugene Allen, on whom the Gaines character is based.

The movie, despite fairly average reviews, has done well at the box office and resonated with a crossover audience. One reason is the all-star cast, including Forest Whitaker as Gaines and Oprah Winfrey as his wife, Gloria. But another is that the story, even with the Hollywood excesses, is simply compelling.

Think about it: At a time when the job prospects for African-Americans were not only severely limited but didn't offer much advancement, here was a gig that afforded an ordinary man a bird's eye view of moments in U.S. history that ranged from mundane to extraordinary.

It's as though the silver tray he held in his white-gloved hands simultaneously rendered him invisible and superpowerful. There was always dignity in the hard work of being a maid or butler — the problem was that many blacks were often diminished and still treated like slaves.

"I read somewhere that Uncle Lonnie said he worked in a fabulous prison and the president was his warden," said Clinton Fields, 58, a Beverly resident and retired Chicago firefighter. "It was the best house in the country to work in and yet he had to deal with all the racism."

"Back then, if you were black, you were a Pullman Porter, if you were lucky, or a domestic," said Loretta Fields, who lives in South Shore and sells real estate. "You didn't have many choices."

In his 1961 memoir "My 21 Years in the White House," Alonzo Fields said he was frustrated by black and white servants having to eat in separate quarters. But he delighted in meeting the dignitaries of the day.

He also wrote about President Herbert Hoover exercising with a medicine ball, and the president following the news regarding the 1932 kidnapping of aviator Charles Lindbergh's baby. Fields, who was born in 1900, said that he served as Winston Churchill's valet whenever President Franklin Roosevelt invited Churchill to stay at the White House.

And he once surprised first lady Bess Truman with homemade rolls on a night when she was feeling homesick for Missouri and its fresh bread.

The stories about Alonzo Fields are enough to hold your attention, but, as it turns out, Loretta's and Clinton's father, George Fields, also worked in the White House.

According to the family, he was Roosevelt's valet from about 1937 until 1941 when he left to join the Navy. George Fields, born in 1911, shows up in the 1940 U.S. Census as one of the White House's four "Negro servants." Alonzo Fields got his younger brother the job.

Clinton said that although his uncle and father had to agree not to divulge what went on in the White House, his father was far more tight-lipped.

"I remember my father talking about having trained Roosevelt's (Scottish terrier), Fala," said Clinton. "When he left, Roosevelt asked him if there was anything that he wanted as a memento. He gave him a hat and several dining table place cards."

"Dad was very loyal to Roosevelt," Loretta said. "With (the president) having polio, my father felt that as his valet, what went on behind closed doors was going to stay there."

(In the 2001 movie "Pearl Harbor" there's a scene in which an angry Roosevelt tries to lift himself from his wheelchair to stand and a black valet rushes to his aid. "Get back, George," Roosevelt says. Clinton believes that character is based on his father.)

Alonzo and George Fields grew up in Indianapolis after their parents moved the family there from what was then Lyles Station, Ind. It began in the early 1840s as a settlement for free blacks and runaway slaves.

Clinton said his uncle had a lovely baritone voice and initially wanted to be a classical singer. In his 20s, Alonzo Fields moved to Boston to attend the New England Conservatory. Unable to pay for it, he took a job as a butler for Samuel Stratton, the president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who agreed to pay Fields' tuition.

While working for Stratton, Fields got to meet Thomas Edison and John D. Rockefeller and believed the job would make him more polished and cultured.

"But Stratton passed away in 1931 and my uncle was out of a job," Clinton said. "(First lady Lou Henry Hoover) had heard him sing during a visit to Stratton's home and remembered him and invited him to work at the White House."

Loretta said that her father and uncle viewed their jobs at the White House as springboards to something more.

"Uncle Lonnie never became a concert performer, but he was able to parlay his experiences working for presidents and became a public speaker," said Loretta, adding that he was featured in Life magazine. "He lived off the money he made from speaking engagements until he died" in 1994.

"My father left the Navy and became an accountant for the (Internal Revenue Service). They moved him to Chicago and he met my mother." He died in 1991.

Loretta has three children and so does her brother. One of the six has a doctorate; four either have postgraduate degrees or are working on them. The youngest is an undergraduate in college.

"Our kids have professional careers and they can do the work they do because of the people who came before them," Loretta said. "My father and uncle are part of a large group whose labor laid the groundwork for us to move forward."

dtrice@tribune.com

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