Photo by Brian Kaiser.

The Interview: Wil Haygood

Author / Journalist / Curator

Everyone loves an underdog. And in our interview, celebrated Columbus author Wil Haygood referenced many feel-good sports stories woven into the fabric of American culture. From Remember the Titans, to Hoosiers and Friday Night Lights, he maintains that the feat accomplished at East High during the 1968-69 school year, in which the Tigers won championships in basketball and baseball 55 days apart, eclipses them all.

“I would never like to be called an activist,” says Wil Haygood when asked if he might consider himself such. “That’s not my game. I’m here just to find a good story. It’s my calling to be objective. I could never just tell one side of the story.”

Yet, in reading his latest book, Tigerland, and immersing the reader in the strife East High faced in the wake of the assassinations of MLK and RFK, the “feel-good” triumph of two championships takes on a higher purpose. There’s so much more to the story. It’s the tale of a segregated city getting its first African-American principal in Jack Gibbs. Of the white basketball coach Bob Hart, choosing to settle in an East side neighborhood he was warned against. The players, and mothers of players, who persevered in the newly developed housing projects despite overwhelming odds. Haygood may not want the title activist, but Tigerland could easily serve as guide in how to counter civil unrest, especially now, fifty years removed.

That objective journalism is becoming more of a rarity is troubling. Haygood’s storytelling is a resistance, and in Tigerland it’s a redemption story brought “from the shadows” that is uniquely complex and distinctly of Columbus. He insists there are many more stories of Tigerland’s ilk which must be exposed. The uncovering of a zeitgeist forgotten is a theme consistent with Haygood’s recent curation of the Harlem Renaissance exhibit at the Columbus Museum of Art. In I, Too, Sing America (also an award-winning art book), he chose to spotlight lesser-known writers and artists of the era that continue to play “an enduring role in moving us forward.” How that dais influenced the cultural rise of African-Americans in the Mt. Vernon neighborhood where the sub-plots in Tigerland play out, is palpable in Haygood’s words.

In talking with Haygood, he’s acutely aware of how Tigerland’s legacy and the continued re-awakening of the Harlem Renaissance add to the social discourse that accumulates to this day. Our interview here is abridged, if only because we spent a taut 45 minutes veering down rabbit holes created by the vivid representation Haygood paints of Columbus, Ohio in 1968. Fortunately, it’s a conversation that has and could last for generations.

In an interview you talked about Tigerland not being the story “you were born to write, but a story that the rest of the world needed to hear.” Why is this now such an important story?

Wil Haygood: When I traveled around the country, to about 25 different cities talking about this book, people constantly asked me if the release of Tigerland was intentional given how timely the story was. It just happened that it was the 50th anniversary of the famous Olympic protests by Tommie Smith and John Carlos, the Colin Kaepernick narrative was playing out, the President of the United States was attacking black athletes for their social activism—these were the things on the mind of so many people on this tour. Of course, I didn’t time it, but this story is just so topical, it’s so rich with drama, it just calls for very enlightening conversations with the people I met across the country.

I love it for the locality, and learning about a Columbus I never knew existed. So I’m curious to know if the heroes in this book, Bob Hart (East’s white football coach), Jack Gibbs (East’s first black principal), and the Tiger athletes, have always been heroes in your eyes, especially growing up? Did Columbus, en masse, know the history being made on the East side of town? 

WH: The city was so segregated that it was hard to give the East side its proper due. A figure like Jack Gibbs—he’s someone who you can almost make a movie about his life. It took so much perseverance and so much focus for the student body of East High to do what they did in that 1968-69 calendar year that I thank the literary gods for the foresight to return to my hometown and pull this story together. Frankly I kept waiting for this to be written by someone else, given the amount of high school sports stories that are on the shelf. I’m not trying to rate this story against any of the others, but I do think that it’s a book with a sports theme. It’s also a book that’s about far more than sports.

Was this your favorite book to write?

WH: That’s a tough question, but here’s how I’ll answer. As a little boy, I lived in the North side of the city. When I lived there East High was a mythical place and I had never laid eyes on that school. But I knew about it because it seemed to be this spiritual epicenter of the East side. It was where you had a lot of black teachers, an all-black student body. Your uncles, aunts, and cousins would always be talking about East High School. It constantly grew in my little boy mind. I lived within walking distance of the Ohio State Fairgrounds, so I would always beg my mother to let me go watch the team play. You had to be there. It was a lot wrapped up inside of me as I approached this book, because in a real way I was writing about my heroes. I’m sure that my history and emotions played a part in me wanting to do this book.
What memories do you have of Columbus during that time, that reminds you that no place was isolated from the racial and social unrest of the events of that era?

WH: In the summer of 1968, the very summer of after Martin Luther King’s assassination, my mother moved her five children to the Bolivar Arms housing project. Within weeks of moving there, there were riots on Mt. Vernon [Avenue]. I, as a 13 year old boy, saw National Guard tanks right through my screen door. It was a very frightening summer for me to wrapped up in that racial turmoil. I did not know that urban unrest on the North side of town. That street was integrated, our neighbors were white. Then I was thrust into this community on the East side that was feeling pain—the pain of a lack of good housing, a lack of jobs. The whole environment of urban America was set right outside of my front door.

How much do you think Columbus has progressed since the time of Tigerland in accepting inclusion and fostering growth in underprivileged neighborhoods like the East side?

WH: There has been a lot of maturity and growth in this city. I’m very proud of a lot of things that have happened. There is no big city in this country right now that doesn’t have social problems, but I think Columbus has done a much better job than some cities certainly in creating a peaceful dialogue over the years. I think that there have been stories that haven’t been championed as much as they should have. There is a gap in what the young people of Columbus know about the city’s past. Another fact from the book is that during that school year in 1969, East High sent more kids to college than they ever had before. Those are stories people need to know.

As a teacher of many students who come from broken homes and neighborhoods, I’d love to know what advice you give to young people?

WH: Since the release of the book I’ve spoken to Somali students in St. Paul, Minnesota, to white students in rural Maryland, black students in Dayton, Ohio. I tell students that on their darkest day, on that day when they feel like the world is not loving them enough, that they need only to take inspiration from these East High Tiger athletes. Eight of the twelve basketball players’ mothers worked as maids, many of them did not have fathers living in the home, two of them had fathers in jail, and none of them were born with a silver spoon in their mouth. But what pushed them and helped them succeed was a championship attitude before they dribbled a basketball or swung a baseball bat. They knew they wanted to be successful. They can lean into this story and they can rise up. Sports is a very gentle way to open the door to talk about poverty, racism, and sexism. You want to hear about how the winners won and how the losers dealt with losing.

Wil Haygood will be the first featured speaker of the Columbus Metropolitan Library’s Carnegie Author series on Jan. 27th. Register for free at Eventbrite.com.

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