Why students should read ‘Tigerland’ this Black History Month

February is Black History Month, a time to reflect on the contributions of African Americans to the United States. One way Southern Utah University students can celebrate is by educating themselves on Black history using the wide variety of library books published on the topic. 

“Tigerland: 1968-1969, a City Divided, a Nation Torn Apart, and a Magical Season of Healing” by Wil Haygood is one of these books, describing the lives of Black athletes striving for success at the height of a movement for their rights.

In 1968, Martin Luther King Jr., the brave yet peaceful leader of the civil rights movement, fell at the hands of an assassin. The very next year, in 1969, a new legend rose for the Black community of Columbus, Ohio. The East High Tigers, a team of segregated young Black men with something to prove, won two state championships in one year. Despite the racial climate of the times, Black and white people alike united in Columbus in support of their city’s contender in both state tournaments.

East High’s basketball team was dominant on the court, so following a 1968 state championship, it was no surprise when experienced head basketball coach Bob Hart began leading his team of talented athletes to another high-caliber season. 1969 yielded East High another undefeated season and state championship. In addition, the year was defined by a historical record. The poorly-funded baseball team, coached by warm-hearted Paul Pennel, also took home a state championship in ‘69, marking the first time a school had ever won those two state titles in the same year.

“Tigerland” beautifully intertwines the lives of individual athletes, the incredible success of the two state championship sports teams and the heartbreaking yet heroic stories of the civil rights movement. Renowned journalist and established author Haygood spares no details in his laboriously researched account of East High’s impressive accomplishment.

The book opens readers’ eyes to the perspectives of those on the basketball court, on the baseball field and even in the hallways of the school. When the gifted shooter Dwight “Bo-Pete” Lamar transferred to East High because his prior school frowned on his afro, readers can sense his frustration. When skilled catcher Garnett Davis ignored the prom to focus on preparing himself for the baseball game the next day, Haygood’s audience can grasp his dedication. When star basketball and baseball player Ed Ratleff succeeded in bringing two state titles to the East High Tigers, readers can feel the pride of his victory. Haygood doesn’t simply scratch the surface layer, he digs deeper to truly know and understand the athletes and coaches.

“Tigerland” provides more than just a compelling story about athletic performance. It explores the racial turmoil of the 1960s and the impact it had on segregated Black communities like the East Side of Columbus. Haygood explores events including Brown v. Board of Education, the murder of Emmett Till and Jackie Robinson’s influential career. The book even expounds on smaller societal progressions, such as charismatic African American Carl Brown opening the first grocery store on Mount Vernon Avenue in Columbus, Amos Lynch running his weekly Black newspaper the Call and Post to cater to an underserved community, or Jack Gibbs, East High’s strict but caring leader, becoming the first Black principal in Columbus. While these occasions may seem typical today, Haygood makes it clear they carried significant weight and impacted the pride of the Black community at the time.

Prior to authoring “Tigerland,” Haygood published seven nonfiction books, many of which explored 20th century figures of the civil rights movement. The African American journalist attended East High in Columbus soon after the 1968-1969 school year covered in his book.

“Tigerland” is a masterpiece that cuts deep, reminding readers of how sports helped society to progress against racism and segregation. Haygood’s memorable book brings to life a forgotten story and should become a staple in the Gerald R. Sherratt Library’s collection.

The library houses hundreds of thousands of books, gives access to an even more expansive online academic database and provides a quiet space for students to study. More information on Gerald R. Sherratt Library can be found here.


Story by: Kale Nelson
Photos courtesy of Columbus Monthly and Penguin Random House