Wednesday, Sep 19, 2018
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American storyteller: Wil Haygood chronicles the human experience

Columbus native profiles the lives of historical giants


An unexpected thing happened to Wil Haygood on the road to becoming an urban planner, the field he studied at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.

He decided he wanted to write books.


Wil Haygood will share his figurative and literal life journey Wednesday as part of the 2017-18 Authors! Authors! lecture series sponsored by The Blade.


There were detours early on, including 18 months in the executive training program at Macy's in New York City, from which he was fired, and subsequent months spent washing dishes just to survive.

In contemplating his future, he decided that writing was his best bet, something he'd truly enjoyed as an undergraduate. But how to achieve his dreams? He discovered that many authors start off as newspaper reporters, and so he set about getting hired at smaller papers and working his way up the ladder until he finally landed at the Boston Globe.

That's where the Mississippi River changed his fortunes.

“I took a trip down the Mississippi River when I was with the Boston Globe, 40 days on the Mississippi,” he recalled during a recent conversation with The Blade. “I wrote a long article about traveling the entire length of the river in honor of Mark Twain’s birthday. The story got a lot of attention.

“An editor at Mark Twain’s publishing house in New York called me out of the blue and asked me if I had enough material from that trip to write a book. I wanted to scream on the telephone. I said ‘Sir, I have enough material to write three books!’ And that’s how my book-writing life started.”

The Columbus native is now the author of highly regarded biographies of Harlem congressman Adam Clayton Powell, Sammy Davis, Jr., Thurgood Marshall, and others. He'll share his figurative and literal life journey at 7 p.m. Wednesday at the McMaster Center at the Toledo Lucas County Public Library as part of the 2017-18 Authors! Authors! lecture series sponsored by The Blade.

If that Mississippi journey brought Mr. Haygood notice, it took another series of articles to bring him fame. He was working at the Washington Post by the time he wrote a three-part series called “A Butler Well Served by this Election,” which would be adapted into the acclaimed 2013 film The Butler, starring such heavyweights as Oprah Winfrey, Vanessa Redgrave, Forest Whitaker, and Jane Fonda.

That book, which depicted a 20th century servant in the White House who withstood the political winds of change at work while having to face them in his personal life, compelled Haygood to continue to mine the non-fiction genre to great effect. His first biograhy, in 1993, was King of the Cats, about the life of Harlem congressman Adam Clayton Powell.

He followed it with biographies of Davis, Sugar Ray Robinson, and most recently late Supreme Court Justice Marshall. There was even a book about his own family along the way — The Haygoods of Columbus — about parents who fled north to give their children better educational opportunities.


Who: Author Wil Haygood

When: 7 p.m. Wednesday

Where: McMaster Center, Toledo Lucas County Public Library, 325 Michigan St.

Tickets: $15 at

Information: 419-259-5200

Because each book takes about four years to write, Mr. Haygood said he’s not just telling the story of a person but attempting to capture a time in history.

“My Sammy Davis, Jr., book is not just a book about Sammy Davis,” he said. “It’s a book about vaudeville, a book about the 1920s and 1930s. It’s a book about the Rat Pack. It’s a book about the beginning of blacks and their roles in movies. These figures have enabled me to tell the story of the history of America from both sides of the mirror, black and white.”

In choosing a subject, the author said it’s critical to find someone you’ll be comfortable spending time with. Lots of time. That was certainly true of his most recent book.

“I said to myself that if I’m going to spend another four or five years writing a major biography, I wanted that figure to be as big as Sugar Ray Robinson or Sammy Davis, Jr., because those are very hard books to do; they involved a lot of traveling and research,” he explained.

“I had written a book about a sports figure, a politician, and an entertainer. The realm that was left was the law. When you talk about blacks in the law, you inevitably talk about a genuine quest for freedom. I found that figure in Thurgood Marshall.”

Indeed, Showdown: Thurgood Marshall and the Supreme Court Nomination That Changed America (2015) pre-dates his ascension to the high court and takes readers back to his earliest years and most important cases, especially Brown vs. Board of Education. That triumph of desegregation, which Marshall successfully argued before the U.S. Supreme Court, cemented his civil rights legacy.

Mr. Haygood was also fascinated by the relationship between Marshall and President Lyndon B. Johnson, the man who nominated him to the high court. Far from being strangers, they’d known each other for years.

“They had a history together, which I did not know,” the biographer explained. “Thurgood Marshall first met Lyndon Johnson in the 1940s in the South, and they were both on the same side of the civil rights battle, Marshall more so. I think Lyndon Johnson said to himself if he were to integrate the U.S. Supreme Court, he had to get the smartest African-American lawyer out there. There were other lawyers who were just as smart as Marshall, but there were no other lawyers, I think, who had the vision Marshall had.

“He had the vision in the 1940s to file lawsuits against this country in the arena of voting rights, equal pay for school teachers, and jailhouse beatings. By the time 1957 rolled around, Lyndon Johnson felt that Marshall was brave, like Johnson himself who passed the 1964 Civil Rights Bill and the 1965 Voting Rights Act. That took bravery, because Johnson knew that his party would lose a lot of the South, and that’s true. I think the South fell away from the liberals after that point.”

This year, Mr. Haywood was named a Patrick Henry Writing Fellow, so he’s currently on sabbatical from his teaching position at his alma mater. Situated in a cozy house in Chestertown, Md. (“It was built in 1732!” he enthused), he’s working on his next book, which is set closer to home. It details Columbus East High School, which won state basketball and baseball championships within 41 days of each other in 1968-69 and was one of the few inner-city schools to avoid rioting after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.

“As a trained journalist, I seek out stories with a lot of inherent drama,” he explained. “They are also stories that seem to have gotten lost in the mainstream annals of history. With my biographies, these figures just happened to be African-American — figures fascinating enough to use as a spokes wheel to tell the story of the arc of America.”

Expect that arc to be explored during Wil Haygood’s Toledo visit, plus a little extra.

“And then there’s the story of this kid born in the Midwest, in Ohio, who grows up and has these dreams to become a writer,” he said. “And it happened for him.”

Contact Mike Pearson at or 419-724-6159.

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