Alex Haley and the roots of modern genealogy (part 2)

August 27, 2021 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: journalism.

During the mid 1970s and before, genealogy was a pretty hard slog, not to mention a lonely one. The few people who took an interest in researching their family’s history found that family stories didn’t square with the facts (they rarely do), family records often did not go beyond a few entries in the family Bible, and official records were scattered and inaccessible — if they existed at all.

Finding a gravesite meant putting on a pair of hiking boots, following vague directions, and discovering a set of stones that contain little or no information.

Nothing was online. We didn’t even know what the term meant.

Most frightening of all to modern genealogists: there was no back in 1975.

Alex Haley changed a lot of that. Haley’s mother’s family of former slaves, tenant farmers, and small-scale artisans had been located in the West Tennessee community of Henning, and Haley had spent a great deal of his boyhood there, listening to the family stories. Haley’s experience was no different from many other children, Black and white, of his era. The family stories could be interesting and fun, but generally they were of no historical value.

That was particularly thought to be true of black families, whose records — if they could be found — might include only first names or vague descriptions. Even pre-1870 census records were not that much of a help. There was a history there, but it was lost.

Haley, thinking about his own family, decided to try to find it. His efforts were monumental. The results — after years of research, writing, travel, and frustration — were phenomenal. It is no exaggeration to say that they changed American culture.

By the late 1960s, Alex Haley could count himself as a successful writer. He had spent 20 years in the Coast Guard, earning for himself the first rating as a “journalist” that that service had ever offered. When he retired from the Coast Guard in 1959, he worked first for Reader’s Digest and later for Playboy, where he invented and developed what became known as the Playboy interview. He had conducted ground-breaking interviews with famous characters such as Martin Luther King, Sammy Davis Jr., Muhammed Ali (then Cassius Clay), George Lincoln Rockwell, Jim Brown, and Johnny Carson.

Haley’s interview with Malcolm X led to a collaboration that resulted in the book, The Autobiography of Malcolm X (published in 1965) a powerful state of the Black activist’s life and attitudes that eventually sold millions of copies and would be considered one of the most important books of the 20th century.

By the time this book had come to fruition, Haley was in hot pursuit of his lifelong obsession, his family’s history, and he made that fact well known. He lectured at libraries and universities about his research and the difficulties of finding records of slave families. He gave interviews about his ancestor, Kunte Kinte, the name the family had inherited as their first African to be brought to America in the 1750s. An excerpt of the book appeared in the Reader’s Digest in 1974.

By the time Roots: The Saga of an American Family was published in full in 1976, it had become a much-anticipated literary event, and it immediately soared to the top of every bestseller list and stayed there for many months. The book was officially classified as “fiction” because Haley had to fill in so many gaps in his research, but many readers — and many booksellers — put it in their non-fiction category. The book won a special Pulitzer Prize in 1977 and became the basis for a mini-series broadcast on the ABC that made television history for the huge audience that it drew — an audience estimated at 130 million viewers.

In 1979, a follow-up series, Roots: The Next Generations, continued the family’s story into the modern era and shows dramatic scenes of Haley’s research, particularly his visit to Africa. Haley himself was played by various actors in the series, including James Earl Jones.

Haley’s efforts are credited with many changes in American attitudes, not the least of which is the igniting of the modern interest in genealogy and the sensitivity with which officials began to keep records and make them more accessible.

Haley continued to work on various projects for the next 15 years. He spent a great deal of time in Tennessee, particularly in East Tennessee where he had purchased a farm. He remained in great demand as a speaker, and it was on one of these speaking trips that he collapsed and died of a heart attack in 1992 at the age of 70.

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