Writer Wil Haygood Finds Hope in a New Generation
What the forgotten athletes of the acclaimed author’s “Tigerland” have taught young people
Kids often gravitate toward heroes. It does not seem to matter if those heroes are mythical or mortal. They fly and soar; they go off on quests and return victorious, having defeated unimaginable odds. Growing up in Columbus, I watched Batman and Superman on television, but other heroes of mine had their feet on the ground. They were basketball and football players.
If you were a Black kid living in Columbus in the 1960s, and if you were wild about basketball, as I happened to be, you found your heroes among the East High Tigers, the all-Black school on the east side of town. I lived on the north side and had never laid eyes on East High, but I knew when East’s basketball team came to play a game at the Fairgrounds Coliseum—within walking distance of my home—I just had to be there. The Tigers were Black pride and Black power and Black-is-beautiful avatars; they were the whole song.
I was 14 years old when the East High basketball season began in 1968. I squirmed in my fairgrounds seat watching the likes of Eddie Ratleff, Nick Conner, Dwight “Bo-Pete” Lamar and Roy Hickman take the court for their first game of that season. It was played at the Coliseum because East High’s auditorium wasn’t big enough to accommodate the East followers. East would go on to win the 1968-69 state basketball championship. They also would win the state baseball championship that year, the first all-Black baseball team in Ohio history to do so. The Tigers seemed better than any Friday-night-light football mania.
Years passed in my writing life, and after a book about Thurgood Marshall, I began to cast about for my next topic. That 1968–69 year of East High glory had long anchored inside of me. So I returned to Columbus in 2014 to do research and interview those players. It was a story that seemed lost, even forgotten. My book, “Tigerland: 1968–1969: A City Divided, a Nation Torn Apart, and a Magical Season of Healing,” was published in 2018. Aside from the sports dimension, it also told the story of public school segregation, resilient schoolteachers and talent being exercised in unselfish ways.
Sharon Rab, founder of the Dayton Literary Peace Prize, arranged for me to speak to groups of students from Dayton-area high schools. In Columbus, East High School students invited Big Walnut High students to join them for lunch and a discussion about “Tigerland.” The students came from a variety of racial and socioeconomic backgrounds.
“Tigerland,” they told me, made them want to talk about the quest for equality on American streets. It made them want to talk about the social justice movement begun by professional athletes who kneeled on the playing field in honor of the drive for equality. They talked about wanting to spend more time with other students from different racial backgrounds. They talked about the challenges that Black athletes continue to face today. And they talked about how a group of Black athletes from East High School had inspired them because they had done something remarkable all those years ago while staring down great odds. Their conversations left me with a feeling that there is hope for this world of ours.