Highlights of a Life
If you can find some way to get to those people and to ask them the questions, I think their stories help you to understand America and the times that we all live in. —Wil Haygood
Acclaimed journalist and author Wil Haygood was born in Columbus, Ohio in 1954, and he grew up there. His mother, Elvira, was a young girl when her parents left the cotton fields of Alabama, hoping that life in a Midwestern city would improve their chances for a future without poverty.
Abandoned by his father, Haygood was raised by his mother, grandparents, aunts and uncles. They lived on Mount Vernon Avenue when it was still a vibrant neighborhood of multiracial grandeur. Haygood was mesmerized by the glittery nightlife and infamous music scene that attracted the likes of Tina Turner and Dionne Warwick. “It was a kind of spiritual oasis for dreamers,” Haygood once told a Columbus Dispatch book critic.
As he watched the flickering neon lights from his bedroom at the Bolivar Arms housing project, the young Haygood was making memories that, decades later, would re-surface in his acclaimed book, The Haygoods of Columbus: A Love Story (1997). Weaving anecdotes with historical fact, this biography relates the coming of age of an acclaimed black writer and journalist, and the rise and fall of a thriving urban neighborhood. Haygood wrote in the book’s first chapter, “It was the kind of avenue where you kept smiling even if your best dream got turned around.”
Haygood graduated from Franklin Heights High School and majored in urban studies at Ohio’s Miami University in Oxford. He was fired from a management position at Macy’s in New York and, with no news background, landed his first reporting job with the Columbus bureau of the black community newspaper, the Call & Post. His primary accomplishment at the weekly was a compelling report on “the destruction of Mount Vernon Avenue.” His gift for writing was quickly recognized, and his tenure at the Call & Post became a stepping stone along the way to high profile jobs at the Boston Gobe and the Washington Post.
Beginning in the late 60’s, a national trend toward urban reconstruction took its toll on Mount Vernon Avenue. City planners ordered the razing of countless stores, theaters, clubs and small businesses. What’s more, homes were torn down to build interstate 71. Haygood was an adolescent during this time.
Though he lived under the loving eye of his mother’s extended family, Haygood’s surroundings were anything but traditional. His half-brother was a pimp and a gangster, two of his sisters had illegitimate children, and his mother would often disappear for weekends of partying. Haygood credits his grandparents for teaching him right from wrong. “I guess it’s the fact that my grandparents, who mostly raised me, morally centered me,” he said in an interview with Poynter Online. The grit he acquired from living in the intense Mount Vernon district no doubt helped to shape Haygood’s drive and determination to find what he called “the story behind the story.”
His persistence paid off. His career in journalism took Haygood to the depths of the AIDS epidemic in Africa, at the center of the Los Angeles riots, behind prison walls for an exclusive interview with soul musician James Brown, and face-to-face with the late Alabama governor George Wallace.
Even while covering breaking world news, Haygood’s early experiences in Columbus continued to haunt the writer until he finally returned to his hometown to document his heritage. Haygood’s leave of absence from the Boston Globe resulted in the 1997 release of a memoir that is considered an important contribution to understanding the extended family culture in the lives of African Americans. The Haygoods of Columbus: A Love Story was awarded the Great Lakes Book Award, as well as the Ohioana Book Award for nonfiction in 1998.
Haygood is also the author of Two on the River, about a 2,000-mile journey down the Mississippi; King of the Cats: The Life and Times of Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., and In Black and White, a biography of Sammy Davis Jr. He is currently a staff writer for the Style section of the Washington Post.