MIT 2016: Celebrating a Century in Cambridge
The Butler Before the Butler: Alonzo Fields
That saying, “Life is what happens to us while we are making other plans,” certainly applies to Alonzo Fields, who served as the butler to MIT President Samuel W. Stratton in the mid-1920s.
Fields came to Boston from the all-black community of Lyles Station, Indiana, in 1925 to attend the New England Conservatory of Music. He was inspired by his father, who led Lyles Station’s all-black brass band, and planned to teach music.
Fields needed a job while attending school and, through an acquaintance, landed the position at MIT after an interview with President Stratton and his secretary, Morris Parris. As noted by Clarence G. Williams in the Blacks at MIT History Project, Fields was understandably hesitant about the job: “I confess I didn’t relish the thought of being a house servant, but Mr. Parris pointed out that if I ever did reach the heights of a concert singer, these conventions he was teaching me would give me a background of good breeding.”
Fields met many a dignitary during his years at MIT, and these connections proved important when Stratton died unexpectedly in 1931. Despite having a date set for his debut at Jordan Hall, Fields had to go where work was available. After all, it was the Depression and he had a family to support. He was offered a job in the Hoover White House. This musician ultimately spent more than 20 years in service to Presidents Hoover, Roosevelt, Truman, and Eisenhower. Fields was in charge of all social functions at the White House and met royalty, military brass, and Hollywood stars, among others.
In 1953, Fields resigned to be with his wife in Medford, who was ill. Fields wrote a memoir in 1960 and, in 2013, the movie The Butler was released. The main character in the film, Cecil Gaines, was based on the life of Eugene Allen, the man Fields hired to be his successor in the White House.