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 motion picture The Butler—of which Haygood is associate producer—starring Oprah Winfrey, Forest Whitaker, Jane Fonda, Vanessa Redgrave, and Cuba Gooding Jr.
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 writing 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.
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.