Arts feature: Wil Haygood’s ‘Tigerland’

Jim Fischer
Columbus Alive
Photo by Jeff Sabo

Wil Haygood was born and raised on Columbus' North Side. But he and his friends were fans of the teams at East High School. They would head over to the coliseum at the Ohio State Fairgrounds to watch those teams play, because East was the city's “black” high school.

“If you were black and in the city, you had a sense of pride in the teams from East,” Haygood said by phone from Washington, D.C.

The summer he was entering ninth grade, Haygood's family moved to the East Side. He would graduate from Franklin Heights High School, but the East pride remained. “East was the community. East was the black East Side of the city. It represented pride, represented culture, represented goodness, represented resilience,” Haygood said.

The celebrated author recalled the story of Dwight “Bo-Pete” Lamar. Lamar lived in the same North Side neighborhood as Haygood and was a basketball player at North High School. He was the kid in the neighborhood all the younger kids looked up to. “Our hero,” Haygood called him. Lamar was kicked off the team because his afro was too big and he refused to have it cut.

“It was a radical event. [Lamar] moved to the East Side. It was sad for all of us. But our hero was now starting for East High,” Haygood said.

In the 1968-1969 school year, Lamar and his East teammates would win a state high school basketball championship. Success on the court was not new to the school. A mere five weeks later, the school's baseball team, for which success was unexpected, won the state high school baseball title.

“When I would come back home to Columbus, for this or that event, I would inevitably visit the old school and see these two gigantic state championship trophies staring me in the face. It's a phenomenal story. Everyone loves an underdog story. That made me start to think about a book,” Haygood said of the first stirrings of what would becomeTigerland. “I wanted to find out how the story got lost. It was a turbulent time. But this was not just a Columbus story. It happened here, but that it happened in one year, and in the midst of segregation, and on the heels of the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bobby Kennedy makes it a national story. I just felt it was a very special story to tell.”

“When I contacted the first three players from those teams to interview them for the book, they each got tears in their eyes. They thought nobody cared about their story, and they were stunned that I wanted to write it,” Haygood said.

To celebrate the release ofTigerland, the Lincoln Theatre Association and the Ohio State University Athletic Department will host an event with Haygood on Wednesday, Sept. 19, at the Lincoln. Moderated by U.S. District Judge Algenon L. Marbley, the event will feature an interview with Haygood and a book signing.

Lamar would later be named an NCAA All-American three times and be drafted by the NBA's Detroit Pistons. His teammate Ed Ratleff was a two-time collegiate All-American and member of the 1972 U.S. Men's Olympic Basketball Team. Garnett Davis was drafted by baseball's New York Mets in 1969. Those are just a few of the names encountered inTigerland, each with a unique story. (ReadTigerland to encounter more names and stories, and to find out why the East baseball team's run to the state title was what's known in sports as a “Cinderella story.”)

“These students went into the school year during the Mexico City Olympic Games [held in October 1968]. They saw John Carlos and Tommie Smith raise their fists on the medal stand. They talked about it. They knew their black leader, Martin Luther King, Jr., had been shot down. This was something they felt viscerally,” Haygood said. “Jack Gibbs was the principal at East — the first black principal in [Columbus City Schools]. He looked at that student body and told them, ‘Many people expect us to explode. We must not do that. We must set an example, and let the world know who we are.' And they set about achieving something quite spectacular.”

Lincoln Theatre

7 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 19

769 E. Long St., King-Lincoln

Wil Haygood