In 2009, an elderly Cecil Gaines recounts his life story while waiting at the White House to meet the newly inaugurated president. In 1926, at the age of seven, Gaines is raised on a cotton plantation in Macon, Georgia. When the farm's owner rapes Cecil's mother, Cecil's father confronts him and is killed. Cecil is taken in by the estate's caretaker, who trains Cecil as a house servant. In 1937, at age eighteen, Cecil leaves the plantation. Desperately hungry, he breaks into a hotel pastry shop. The elderly master servant, Maynard, takes pity on Cecil and gives him a job. Cecil learns advanced serving and interpersonal skills from Maynard, who later recommends Cecil for a position in a Washington, D.C. hotel. While working there, Cecil meets and marries Gloria, and the couple has two sons: Louis and Charlie. In 1957, Cecil is hired by the White House during Dwight D. Eisenhower's administration. White House martyr d'hotel Freddie Fallows introduces Cecil to head butler Carter Wilson and co-worker James Holloway. Cecil witnesses Eisenhower's reluctance to use troops to enforce school desegregation, then his resolve to uphold the law by racially integrating Little Rock Central High School in Arkansas..