The Haygoods of Columbus: A Family Memoir, Wil Haygood. New York: Peter Davison Books/Houghton Mifflin, 1997 (The link is to a different, currently in-print edition).
Summary: A memoir of Haygood’s growing up years in Columbus, his extended family, the glory and decline of Mt. Vernon Avenue, and finding his calling as a writer.
Wil Haygood is a distinguished journalist and biographer, having written books on Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., Thurgood Marshall, Sugar Ray Robinson, and Sammy Davis, Jr. He wrote “A Butler Well Served by This Election,” which served as the basis of the 2013 movie, The Butler, A Witness to History. And he grew up in my current home town of Columbus, Ohio.
This work is one of his earlier works, after becoming established as a journalist with The Boston Globe (he would later write for The Washington Post). In it, he describes what it was like to grow up in Columbus. It’s a story of fishing on the Olentangy River, living for a time with his mother in the Bolivar Arms Apartments (an urban renewal project), and aspiring to play basketball, even faking residency in several different school districts to get a chance to play. He was never very good, but got enough of an education to get into Miami University, where an injury ended his career, and he majored in literature.
The book is subtitled “a family memoir,” and is as much about his family as anything. His parents met in the South and his father Jack, who eventually divorced his mother, Elvira, moved to Columbus because several relatives had jobs there. Elvira followed, Wil and his twin sister Wonder were born, and after the divorce, they moved into Elvira’s parents, Jimmy and Emily Burke. It’s a story of a troubled family. Haygood often didn’t know if Elvira would return from her jaunts on Mt. Vernon Avenue. His step-brother, “Macaroni” was a pimp and a hustler who only could evade the law so long. Another brother, Harry, had dreams of stardom, ending up in a homeless camp in Marin County. I suspect the influence of Jimmy and Emily, hard-working folks who owned their home in Weinland Park may have rubbed off on Wil. Often, it was will, after he was established, who would send money, and help one or another when they were down.
It’s a story about the glory days and decline of Mt. Vernon Avenue, a main street running east from downtown Columbus (before the freeways) that was the cultural heart of the Black community–theaters, jazz joints, groceries, restaurants and clothing shops and churches. Haygood focuses on Carl Brown’s grocery. Brown established his presence by hauling fresh produce, overpriced in other stores, from the South. He describes a chain competitor that came in, and rapidly went under, and Brown’s attempts to hang on, which he did until his death, employing many youth in his store over the years.
It was also the location of The Call & Post, a black weekly newspaper under editor Amos Lynch, one of those who sought to keep Mt. Vernon Avenue alive. After graduation, Haygood attempted a career at acting, ended up back in Columbus working odd jobs, and finally, on a whim applied at The Call & Post. He had a tryout that failed, but Lynch liked his energy and called him back. He covered sports and the courts, and leveraged the position into jobs in Charleston, West Virginia, Pittsburgh, and eventually with The Boston Globe, for whom he was writing at the time of the book.
These three elements, the bonds of family even when it gets messy, the fabric of community, and the finding of calling weave together in Haygood’s account. Along the way, one glimpses the life of Columbus back in the 1950’s to 1980’s (we moved here in 1990), so it was a rich account of the backstory of our adopted home town (complete with Mayor Sensenbrenner, Woody Hayes, old downtown landmarks and Scioto Downs). I identify with the sadness of witnessing the decline of community–the story of Mt. Vernon Avenue could be the story of Market Street or Mahoning Avenue where I grew up–once-vibrant communities that are shadows of their former selves. One reflects on the mystery of finding one’s calling–how an aspiring basketball player ends up a journalist and biographer–the family influences, mentors, and the chance event of submitting an application on a whim. Finally, there are these mysterious bonds of family, a boy finding the love he longed for in his mother and father in his grandparents, how a family deals with its “black sheep” and those who struggle to find themselves, hoping that they will find redemption as “Macaroni” eventually did.
Haygood and I are the same age. His memoir makes me reflect on how the places, people, and times of our lives help shape the people we are. Our stories are different, to be sure, but the elements are not. This memoir helps me understand not only the place where I live but perhaps myself a bit better.