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Wil Haygoods Tigerland: An Exclusive Excerpt

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Exclusive Excerpt Haygoods Tigerland

How two extraordinary teams at Columbus' East High School in 1968-69 set out to show the world that nothing could keep them down—not poverty, discrimination, fractured families or the social turmoil of their times.

The following is a Columbus Monthly exclusive excerpt from author Wil Haygood's upcoming book, “Tigerland,” subtitled “1968–1969: A City Divided, a Nation Torn Apart and a Magical Season of Healing” It's an inspiring true story about a group of talented Columbus East High School athletes and their pursuit of state championships in both basketball and baseball, set against the backdrop of the civil, racial and social unrest of their times. “Tigerland” is scheduled to be published nationwide Sept. 18.

They were poor boys wedged into the turmoil of a nation at war and unrest. They were the sons of maids and dishwashers and cafeteria workers, poor as pennies and too proud to beg, but not to ask or borrow. Their mothers were among the large waves of those who had come from the Deep South, a sojourn begun in 1945 known as the Great Migration. The Pacific Coast and the Midwest were favored destinations. Families had fled by train or bus, escaping all those cotton fields and blades of injustice. Columbus, Ohio, was a stop on the above-ground railroad where families had come praying for new opportunities. The boys' fathers were mostly absent. Garnett Davis, the gifted third baseman on the baseball team, had a father, but he was stuck down in South Carolina, on a damn chain gang. Nick Conner, the pogo-jumping basketball player, had a father too, but one who had abandoned the family for another life in Cleveland. Basketball player Robert Wright's father had murdered a man. Kenny Mizelle, who played second base, sometimes dreamed about his dead father. At least that's what he had been told all these years, that his dad was dead. But he wasn't. Boys will be boys, and blood rolls thick, and when it comes to fathers, it often rolls backwards. Their mothers could only implore them to look ahead, especially so because it was a tricky and dangerous time.

The year 1968 began convulsing and fire-balling its way toward 1969. There was deep tumult on the streets of America. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy had tried to do something about it all, the poverty, the absence of fathers that cut into a bone of despair, the pitiful condition of black men and the uneven social fabric of America. But these boys were athletes—sinewy, quick and agile basketball and baseball players—blessed with a unique talent that, with the start of 1968, they were hoping could ward off the darkness. They were the Tigers of East High School.

Some of them lived in single-family homes that fronted a fertilizer plant—and the obligatory railroad tracks—just off Leonard Avenue. Some lived in Poindexter Village, the government-funded public housing project, one of the first of its kind in the nation. (President Franklin D. Roosevelt had even come to the city for the dedication.) Still others lived in old apartment buildings behind Mount Vernon Avenue, where the bars and speakeasies were, where the gamblers sauntered about like roosters. Laws and boundaries had been drawn against their families long before they were born, consigning them to a segregated world on the east side of this Midwestern city. They were black boys in a white world, running, jumping and excelling inside that world.

They played most of their basketball games through that cold winter in a converted rodeo cow palace on the Ohio State Fairgrounds, where you could still get whiffs of the horse manure, but no one seemed to mind as the East High Tigers couldn't stop winning. The gym at the high school couldn't accommodate the thousands who wanted to see them play. Their games were often broadcast on radio, an uncommon occurrence at the time for any high school basketball team. Come baseball season the crowds vanished. At the away baseball games, there would sometimes be only one fan in the bleachers rooting for the Tigers, and that was the coach's wife. The boys actually didn't mind playing their baseball games away, in and around rural Ohio, because the diamonds were better at the other schools. They simply set about swinging their bats and blasting the ball into the cornfields. They looked like figures out of the Negro Baseball Leagues, which were by now two decades removed from existence. The umpires—white men raised in the natural flow of segregation—sometimes would gawk at them with awe. They were so proud at game's end, tired and smiling as the farmland receded into view on the ride back home. The proud black boys never complained about the well-to-do schools, and all their fancy equipment. They realized they didn't have the comfort of escaping the crazy and murderous times. They were in the center of it.

Martin Luther King Jr.'s presence hovers over that season. Rev. Phale Hale was the unofficial minister of the East High basketball and baseball teams. He had known King from his own Georgia days and was the first to bring the prophet of black America to Columbus. The gunning down of King in Memphis on April 4, 1968, was an awful deed that unleashed riot and rebellion from Los Angeles to Columbus itself. In nearby Indianapolis, Bobby Kennedy spoke movingly of King's death, blacks and whites weeping around him like a gospel chorus. Then, like King, Kennedy also fell from the bullets of a crazed assassin. Hale had counseled these East High athletes with King-like optimism. He had told them to hold on. He had told them change was going to come. Now, with King's death, Hale, who had given the citywide eulogy, was himself emotionally spent. King and his wife, Coretta, had slept in Rev. Hale's home. It seemed, at ground level, that a nation was unraveling. It was a year of endless apocalypse. King and Kennedy had warned that black and white must come together, though King long before and with much more passion than Kennedy. But now the question loomed: What integration? East High, in the 1968–69 school year, and in spite of integration laws, remained an all-black school. In the fall of 1968 when Jack Gibbs—the first black principal at East High—opened the doors to the cavernous school, he did not know what to expect. The air was uneasy and unpredictable.

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