Photo, left; from left — Sedric Granger Jr. ’20 (New Albany Middle School, New Salem Baptist Church), Mr. Wil Haygood, Joe Kimeu ’20 (St. Paul School, Vineyard Columbus Church) and Cherod Bowens ’22 (All Saints Academy, Christ the King Parish).
Acclaimed author and journalist, Wil Haygood, shared several stories about civil rights and race relations in a presentation to the student body and staff of St. Charles Preparatory School on October 15th in the school’s Robert C. Walter Student Commons. What did Haygood want the students to take away from his presentation? “The understanding,” he said, that “while we live in a very special country, it will always need new ways of thinking, young energy, fortitude and human grace.”
Haygood, who grew up on the east side of Columbus, related stories of his youth, reporting on Nelson Mandela’s release from a South African prison; the Washington Post article on African-American Eugene Allen entitled “A Butler Well Served by This Election,” which inspired the renowned movies, “The Butler”; and his latest book, “Tigerland: 1968-1969; A City Divided, a Nation Torn Apart, and a Magical Season of Healing” about East High School winning state championships in basketball and baseball in the midst of great racial unrest in the city and country.
Photo, from left — Denim Craig ’22 (St. Mary German Village School, First Church of God), Joe Umba ’20 (Columbus International School, Branham Tabernacle Church), Isaiah Wilkins ’22 (Art Impact School, New Birth Christian Ministries), Mr. Haygood, Steven Miller ’77 (St. Charles Advisory Board member and founder of the school’s “My Brother’s Keeper” program), Roland Rowe ‘201 (Baldwin Jr. High School, Gethsemane United Methodist Church), Arthur Hurst ’20 (Oakstone Academy, Good Shepherd Baptist Church) and Osita Anekwe ’20 (Columbus Collegiate Academy, First Church of God).
Mr. Haygood began his presentation by thanking Bob and Peggy Walter, who sponsored his vist to St. Charles, “for their invitation and profound generosity in the fields of art and higher learning in this city. They are truly special people.”
Wil grew up on the Est side of Columbus. He related about during his childhood that his family never had a car. His father did not live with them and his mother could not afford one. So he either had to walk or use public transportation to get anywhere. Later when he became a newspaper reporter, he told his editors that he hoped to have the opportunity to travel. He got such an opportunity at the Boston Globe when he was asked to go to South Africa. There were whispers that Nelson Mandela might be released from prison after 27 years in confinement for the sole reason that he wanted freedom for the black people of South Africa. He wanted his country free from discrimination, brutality and racism. “So here’s a guy who used to catch a city bus flying on a jet to Johannesburg, South Africa, for his newspaper. He noted that one of the challenges facing as journalist is covering stories in places you’ve never been, The first thing he would do is try and make friends with locals who ‘knew the lay of the land.”
Photo, from left — Mr. Haygood speaks with Nelson Gordon ’23 (St. Catharine School, New Salem Baptist Church), Xavier Isbell ’23 (Immaculate Conception School, Immaculate Conception Parish) and Nahom Tewolde ’23 (St. Pius X School, Columbus Debre Berhan Selaisse Etheopian Orthodox Church).
On his second day there, Wil met a local journalist who worked for The Johannesburg Star, named Jovio Manteo. He told Haygood how as a 14 year-old (”a kid your age!”), he had spent 96 days in jail after being arrested for marching for equal rights in a local township. Manteo said he didn’t know if the rumors of Mandels’as release were true. Later he called Haygood to say he couldn’t meet with him that day because he needed to take his mother by bus to a doctor in a nearby city – as there were no hospitals in Johannesburg that treated blacks. The round-trip would take more than half the day.
Haygood told a reluctant Manteo to take the keys to his rental car and take his mom with the goal of saving him much time. After some persuasion, Manteo relented. Late the next night the man banged on Haygood’s door telling him to come with him quickly. They drove into an all-black township called Sowetto, and ended up on top of a hill looking down into a dark valley where thousands of brave young people had secretly gathered singing songs asking to free Nelson Mandela. Haygood then told the audience that even if a person was caught with so much as a picture of Nelson Mandela at that time, they were subject to arrest.
Photo — Members of Columbus Collegiate Academy, one of the schools that the St. Charles mentoring program (“My Brother’s Keeper”) partners with in Central Ohio.
Four days later, Haygood found himself with a few other journalists standing across from an old prison. The doors began to open, creaking very loudly. “I’m standing there not knowing what might happen. When the doors finally opened, there was a man standing there in a brown suit that looked too big for him. The man raised his arm straight up with his fist clenched. “So we’re standing by the side of the road looking at each other because no one had seen a picture of Mandela in 27 years. They asked each other… “is that him?”
“Oh my God, that’s Nelson Mandela!” they all said. “We started writing, Haygood said, “ and to a journalist, our notebooks got wet because tears were coming down our faces, because there was Nelson Mandela in the flesh finally freed. I had the scoop of a lifetime. A few hours later I was standing near him in his home. “Forty days later when I left South Africa, Jovio Manteo said to me ‘Haygood, it is a dream of mine one day to see your country, which has been free for a long time. A few years ago, Haygood and State Senator (SC parent/grandparent) Hearcel Craig sponsored Manteo on a visit to the U.S. and brought him to the Lincoln Theater.
He also spoke about 2008, when he was working at the Washington Post and a young African-American named Barrack Obama, was running for President of the United States. At a rally for Obama in North Carolian, Haygood came across three girls, college students at UNC, who were crying because their fathers did not approve of their support of the African-American Senator from Illinois. Haygood told the young men in the audience that those women were following what Dr. Martin Luther King had preached: “Do not judge someone by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”
Haygood noted how they had stood up to their father’s racism, as have such other great people who stood up to their COUNTRY…Jonathan Lewis, Rosa Parks and others, seeking equal rights. He told his papers’ editors that Obama was going to win and he wanted to write a story that included the thoughts of someone who had served a former President during the late 1960s, the era of segregation.
He told his editors that if he could find one person who worked in the White House before the era of civil rights in 1964, what a great story it would be to take on. He said his editors did not think he could find such a person…but Haygood did: Eugene Allen, an African- American, worked in the White House and had witnessed many notable political and social events of the 20th century during his 34-year tenure, serving eight presidents, as a White House butler.
What came out of that was Haygood’s Washington Post article “A Butler Well Served by This Election” which inspired the renowned movies, “The Butler.” When he started working in the White House, he did not have rights in many states of this country. But he still went to work every day.
“If you ask me, that’s the true definition of patriotism,” Haygood said. Obama went on to win the 2008 presidential election. “It sent a signal to the world,” Haygood said, that the U.S. had a muscle in it that can stand and do the right thing. Not always…we have been involved in too many wars. And I speak from experience. I’ve been in war zones. Wars often solve very little and they are horrific. I have seen people murdered and shot in front of my own eyes. I was once taken hostage by rebels in Somalia and it was a horrifying experience. Wars solve very little”
He said “someday some of you young men will go into the foreign service. And I hope you spread righteousness around the world because when you are a foreigner and don’t think about the ugly torrent of nationalism, you need to think of the world as a human body. You are students who are reading about this because you are in a free land.”
Haygood finished with a story about his recollection writing his most recent book, “Tigerland :1968-1969; A City Divided, a Nation Torn Apart, and a Magical Season of healing; The story of an improbable story of how a poor, segregated school won state championships in basketball and baseball in a year of racial unrest.”
The book focused on East High School, while just down Broad Street a couple miles from St. Charles, it was “in some ways a whole different world from what a St. Charles student might have experienced.”
East High School opened its doors in 1968, the year that Martin Luther King was assassinated. “The students had to come to a true reckoning.” Did they want to cause mayhem and march out to join the rioters, or do we want to do something glorious and show by example who we are? Do we want to honor Dr. martin Luther King at this moment in this nation…and they did.”
He told the boys: “you know how hard it is to win a league championship. The basketball team won a state title and 60 days later, so did the baseball team. But the teams had never truly been celebrated. “But thanks to (Columbus) Mayor (Andy) Ginhter, Senator Craig and others, there is now a street named in honor of their accomplishments: the street running along the east side of the high school has been renamed ‘Tigerland Way.’’”
Haygood finished by addressing the student directly. “To each and every one of you, you are the future and America waits on you and the world waits on you…and we expect you to make us all proud because you do live, when all is said and done, you live in an amazing nation. God bless you!”