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Wil Haygood

Author of 'The Butler: A Witness to History'


Acclaimed Washington Post reporter Wil Haygood had an early hunch that Obama would win the 2008 election and when he did he wanted to publish an article about a black person who had worked in the White House as a servant, someone who had come of age when segregation was so widespread, so embedded in the culture as to make the very thought of a black president inconceivable. He struck gold when he tracked down Eugene Allen, a butler who had served no less than eight presidents, from Harry Truman to Ronald Reagan—and in so doing became a “discreet stage hand who for three decades helped keep the show running in the most important political theatre of all.” The result was The Butler: A Witness to History, a portrait of Eugene Allen’s lifelong journey, from his birth in 1919 on a southern plantation to his years in service at the White House; it is also a broader examination of the history of African Americans in film. The book, which quickly became a bestseller, was released in tandem with the award-winning motion picture The Butler—of which Haygood is associate producer—starring Oprah Winfrey, Forest Whitaker, Jane Fonda, Vanessa Redgrave, and Cuba Gooding Jr. Among the film's many honors include becoming a top selling disc on the Nielsen VideoScan First Alert chart and receiving two NAACP Image Awards for Outstanding Actor in a Motion Picture (Forest Whitaker) and Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Motion Picture (David Oyelowo).

Many prominent people responded to the powerful message produced from the feature film, including President Obama, who was quoted as saying, “"I teared up thinking about not just the butlers who worked here in the White House, but an entire generation of people...I thought Forest Whitaker was wonderful and Oprah is a wonderful actress,” and President Jimmy Carter, who described the film as, "...One of the best dramatizations of the civil rights movement I have seen."

Raised in a poor family and the first of his family to attend college, Haygood went on to become the author of five nonfiction books, including a trilogy of biographies of iconic 20th-century figures hailed as “culturally important” by The Los Angeles Times: King of the Cats: The Life and Times of Adam Clayton Powell Jr., a New York Times Notable Book of the Year; In Black and White: The Life of Sammy Davis Jr., a multiple award winner; and Sweet Thunder: The Life and Times of Sugar Ray Robinson, named a Best Book of the Year by Forbes, The Chicago Tribune, Parade, and Mosaic. His other books are Two on the River—about a 2,500-mile journey down the Mississippi River—and The Haygoods of Columbus: A Family Memoir. In addition, Haygood has come full circle — he will join his Alma mater Miami University as a faculty member in the spring semester of academic year 2014-2015 as the Karl and Helen Wiepking Visiting Distinguished Professor. Then, during academic years 2015-2017, he will hold the position of Distinguished Scholar in the department of media, journalism and film. Haygood will teach courses in media, journalism and film one semester during each of the three years of the appointments.

Haygood's journalism career has been equally notable. For 17 years he was a national and foreign correspondent for The Boston Globe, where he became a Pulitzer Prize finalist. In 1990 while covering the civil war in Somalia he was taken hostage by rebels and eventually released with the aid of Pakistani troops. On another foreign assignment, he found himself standing outside the South African prison when freedom fighter Nelson Mandela was released after 27 years of imprisonment.

In 2002 Haygood joined The Washington Post as a national writer. He was one of the first journalists to make it into New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina struck, a story which he covered for 33 straight days without a break. In 2008, he traveled with Barack Obama. His long career as a reporter covering both national and global affairs makes him an authority on addressing these issues in keynote speeches.

Wil Haygood has been a Yaddo Guest Artist, an Alicia Patterson Foundation Fellow, and a John Simon Guggenheim Fellow. He has been a visiting writer at the University of Georgia, Ohio State University, and Colorado College.

In 2013 Wil Haygood was honored with the prestigious Ella Baker Award, named after the civil rights pioneer. The judges cited Haygood's literary career "for shedding a light on those who give much, but are little noticed." He was awarded an Honorary Doctor of Letters by Miami University (Oxford, Ohio) and a National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowship in 2013.


The Butler: A Witness to History

This is the amazing story of how journalist and author Wil Haygood tracked down the unknown White House butler Eugene Allen, a story which led to the making of the major motion picture, The Butler. The 2013 movie features seven Academy Award winners, among them Forest Whitaker, Jane Fonda, Oprah Winfrey, Cuba Gooding Jr., Vanessa Redgrave, and Robin Williams. Haygood served as an associate producer of The Butler.

Education in America: My Personal Story

Wil Haygood, a New York Times best-selling author, was born in 1954, when legal segregation was upended by the United States Supreme Court. In his writings – and the movie, The Butler, adapted from one of his stories – Haygood has woven a tapestry around some of the most significant and powerful historic moments of the 20th century. In this speech, Haygood shares how race, education and heroism have amazingly converged into his own life.

Haygood's mother and grandparents were all born in Selma, Alabama, the scene of some of the most turbulent racial clashes in the country's history during the 1960s. Haygood's mother left the South and settled in Columbus, Ohio, where Haygood attended both segregated and integrated schools. He went on to attend Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, becoming the first in his family to earn a college degree in 1976. However, it was in Oxford in 1963 where a group of civil rights workers had convened before going to Mississippi, and three of those workers were killed.

This startling event motivated Haygood to chronicle civil rights and minority education in several of his books, including one on Congressman Adam Clayton Powell Jr., the Chairman of the Education Committee in Congress whose committee was responsible for funding the Upward Bound Program as well as Head Start. In addition, Haygood spent 5 years researching a book about Thurgood Marshall, the architect of the historic Brown v Board of Education Supreme Court ruling.

Looking back over his writing life, Haygood firmly believes education has been the key to his success and escape from poverty. This inspiring presentation takes audiences on a journey through the history of the public school system and desegregation, all from Haygood’s personal experiences and extensive research.

Little Wil Haygood: From Poverty to the Big Screen

Wil Haygood was born to a single mother in Columbus, Ohio. He became the first in his family to receive a college degree. With a honed writing talent, he became a nationally recognized journalist and biographer. His career has taken him around the world and to the backlots of Hollywood, where his work has attracted the attention of some of the leading entertainment figures of our times.

History, Race & Culture of the US

Wil Haygood has been called one of America's "canniest cultural historians." As journalist and biographer, he has explored the social and historical dynamics of this country as few modern chroniclers have done in books, magazine articles, and award-winning newspaper coverage. It is little wonder that Bostonian magazine once referred to him as a "Young Literary Lion."

My Trilogy: The Importance of Sammy, Adam & Sugar Ray

In telling the epic story of America, Wil Haygood has produced a biographical trilogy of these three mid-20th-century figures in books that garnered worldwide literary acclaim and prestigious honors: a politician, an entertainer, and a sports champion. It makes for a fascinating evening of American history.

A Writer's Stories

The figures that journalist Wil Haygood has interacted with and written about make up a scintillating Who's Who of our times: James Brown, Nelson Mandela, Andy Warhol, Sally Field, Morgan Freeman, Jerry Lewis, Harry Belafonte, James Baldwin, Eartha Kitt, and Frank Sinatra Jr.

The Beauty of the Presidency

In this fascinating presentation, Wil Haygood shares with audiences how American presidents have confronted the country's social issues. He draws on his many visits to presidential libraries in over his years as a biographer- and his dozens of interviews of former White House officials across many administrations - in offering insights into presidential politics.

A Writer's Travels Around the World

From the oil crisis in Nigeria to the war-torn lands of Somalia and Liberia, from the richness of obtaining a South African education, to the heroism of Esther in Zimbabwe - an AIDS-afflicted woman who cared for 10 nieces and nephews and received an outpouring of international help because of Wil Haygood's reporting- this is an evening of scintillating and inspiring stories from around the world. Haygood's journeys as a globe-trotting foreign correspondent (he was once taken hostage in Somalia by rebels) will enthrall you.

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