Wil Haygood's forgotten book

Dave Ghose
Wil Haygood outside of his family home in Weinland Park

Wil Haygood smiles broadly when he sees his childhood home in Weinland Park. Even though he hasn't lived in the two-story North Fifth Street bungalow in decades—and doesn't even know the current owner—Haygood feels comfortable enough to plop down on the front-porch steps and succumb to the flood of memories: fishing in the Olentangy River, a next-door neighbor's grapevine, basketball games with friends. “Who would have thought that my third book in life would be about this stretch of the Midwest?” asks Haygood during a visit to Columbus in early March.

In a career filled with many literary highs, that book, “The Haygoods of Columbus,” was a rare disappointment, earning strong reviews but selling poorly. Yet it turns out Haygood's tender yet unflinching memoir about his family's life in Columbus has earned an unexpected epilogue.

After its original publisher, Houghton Mifflin, allowed “The Haygoods of Columbus” to go out of print, Ohio State University Press acquired the rights and is now giving the book a second chance to connect with readers.

The rediscovery thrills Haygood, who will be in Columbus on May 17 for a Thurber House event to discuss the reissuing of his most personal book. “It's undoubtedly the one book that I had to go deep within myself to tell the stories about who I am, how I got where I am and be humble about it,” says Haygood, a former Washington Post writer who lives in Washington, D.C. “Also, there's no doubt in my mind that it's the book that advanced my writing further than any other.”

Haygood calls the book an “accidental memoir.” Originally envisioned as a history of Mount Vernon Avenue, the traditional center of African-American life in Columbus, the book took a turn when Haygood presented his first draft to his editor, Peter Davison, who urged him to explore the personal elements of the story. That shift required Haygood to dig into some uncomfortable terrain, including his mother's struggles with alcohol. When he told his mother, Elvira, about the change in plans, she didn't discourage him. “God bless her heart. She said, ‘Make it honest,'” Haygood recalls.

The result was a hybrid memoir of sorts—a moving portrait of an African-American family combined with a historical examination of an inner-city neighborhood. In many ways, the book was ahead of its time, using a personal story to explore sociological issues, much like “Hillbilly Elegy” author J.D. Vance did with his best-selling book. Why didn't Haygood's book take off? The timing was bad, predating the memoir boom. Plus, Haygood, a foreign correspondent for the Boston Globe at the time, wasn't available to do a significant book tour when the memoir was originally released in 1997.

Afterward, he produced three acclaimed biographies of prominent African-Americans—Sammy Davis Jr., Sugar Ray Robinson and Thurgood Marshall—and an article he wrote for the Washington Post was turned into the 2013 movie “The Butler” starring Forest Whitaker and Oprah Winfrey. When “The Butler” was released in movie theaters, Haygood turned his article into a short book and went on a 40-city tour to promote it. As he talked with readers, he was surprised to encounter so many people who spoke fondly of “The Haygoods of Columbus”—and were disappointed that it was out of print.

Haygood began to consider asking his editor at Simon & Schuster to reissue the memoir. But before he had a chance, Haygood got a phone call from Tony Sanfilippo, the director of Ohio State University Press. “It just seemed such a no-brainer to me to bring this book back to print,” Sanfilippo says. Haygood was impressed with Sanfilippo's enthusiasm and gave him the rights to publish it, even though the OSU Press lacked the stature and resources of a big New York publishing house. “I said, ‘Well, why not?'” Haygood says. “If he's showing this kind of interest in bringing the book back out, then maybe they will support it.”

“The Haygoods of Columbus” taught its author to be a braver writer. What's more, it helped lay the groundwork for Haygood's next Columbus project (scheduled to be released next year), a much-anticipated history of the powerhouse East High School basketball teams of the late 1960s against the backdrop of the civil rights movement. If Haygood hadn't steeped himself in the story of Columbus and the East Side with his memoir, then “there is no way I would have been able to bring the narrative firepower to this book that I'm currently working on,” he says.