In 1964, a 42-year-old Tennessean stood in the British Museum
in London staring at a stone tablet. The 164-year-old artifact
that had attracted his attention was the Rosetta Stone
an artifact uncovered by early French archaeologists, which
eventually led to an Anglo-French collaboration that broke the
ancient Egyptian hieroglyphic language.
While the stones decipherment had inspired succeeding
generations of archaeologists throughout the world and revealed
more than 5,000 years of human history, it touched the Tennessean
in a way unique to his own life. As an up and coming writer,
the ability to unlock his own past lay in bits and pieces of
a story that had been passed down through the generations of
his family, but never recorded or documented. The Rosetta Stone
to him represented an aging female cousin in Kansas City, KS
the last of his grandmothers family who knew the
old stories and legends.
Although he had developed a reputation as a celebrity interviewer
and prominent journalist, the Southern Appalachian native walked
out of the British Museum with a book he purchased on the artifact
resolved to an idea and inspired to crack the code of his own
past. It would begin a journey that would change his life forever.
The result would be a book that would enter the annals of world
literature as both one of the most praised and criticized publications
in the 21st Century, but it would also forever change the way
people looked at their families pasts.
Alex Palmer Haley was born on Aug. 11, 1921 in Ithaca, NY to
Bertha George and Simon Alexander Haley.
Both were college students with Bertha studying music at The
Ithaca Conservatory while her husband was working on his Masters
Degree in Agriculture at nearby Cornell University.
The Tennesseans had married in a large ceremony in Henning,
TN but had moved to New York to complete their studies when
Bertha Haley had become pregnant. Her mother and father Will
and Cynthia Palmer had become worried about their daughter when
her letters stopped coming and were two days away from traveling
to New York to see if they were well when the couple suddenly
showed up on their front porch with the infant Alex in arms.
The grandparents were both shocked and instantly smitten with
their six-week-old grandson. Simon Haley knew the strain their
new son would have on them financially. He left Alex and his
wife with her mother and father while he returned to Ithaca,
New York to finish his masters thesis at Cornell.
Will Palmer owned the W.E. Palmer Lumber Company in Henning
and his grandson was his pride and joy. He often took him to
the lumber mill and young Alex was never far from his side.
The role he played in the young childs development left
an impression on him that he would carry throughout his life.
It was one that would come to an abrupt end in 1926 when his
grandfather suddenly passed away.
Alex Haleys father returned from New York to take over
the lumber mill and get the business in order.
The grief his grandfathers death had on his grandmother
was more than the young boy could understand and the two became
incredibly close to one another. Cynthia Palmer buried herself
in her family and it was then that Alex began hearing stories
of his grandmothers family the Murrays. Cynthia
Palmers sisters and cousins would generally gather on
the front porch of the house after dark and begin telling family
stories that entranced the young boy and often embarrassed his
mother, who would sometimes demand that they quit talking about
it often saying, "I wish you all would quit talking about
that old-timey slavery stuff, its entirely embarrassing."
The grandmother would always snap back a quip or two of her
own about how knowing where one came from was important, regardless
of how she felt.
Bertha Haley, who was a highly educated lady, always stressed
the importance of education and proper speech on her son and
bristled at the idea that he might come to think of himself
as something less than he was capable of being because of the
"My mother was a person who wanted her children to be successful,"
said Alex Haley in a 1991 interview, "and she thought that
the old stories my grandmother and her relatives talked about
would adversely affect me in some way, but I found them fascinating
and they inspired my curiosity, especially the fact that they
were speaking words that were entirely foreign to them and from
a land they had only heard or read about in books."
The Haleys would go on to have two more sons named George and
Julius. His father eventually sold the family lumber company
and took a job teaching at the A&M College in Normal, AL
where Alex attended a nearby school. At the age of ten, the
young boy was summoned from his classroom and told to get home.
Bertha Haley, who was only 36-years-old at the time, had been
suffering off and on from an illness since the family had moved
from Henning. When Alex burst into his home, he heard his father
crying and found his mother in her last moments of life.
The grief-stricken family buried their mother and tried to get
on with their life. His father remarried two years later to
a college professor named Zeona Hatcher, who later gave birth
to a little girl and focused her attention on the education
of the three Haley boys. The boys often summered with their
grandmother in Henning, but Alex had noticed the fire in his
grandmother had faded over the years and she seemed resigned
to her fate, but still remained an active figure in the local
At 15, Alex Haley graduated from high school and enrolled in
college. After completing two years of study, the 17-year-old
enlisted into the United States Coast Guard as a mess boy working
in the kitchen. Throughout his life, Haley had been a voracious
reader and, while onboard ship in the South Pacific, read everything
in the ships small library and books borrowed from shipmates.
While in school, Haleys father had insisted that his son
learn how to type and he soon found that his portable typewriter
became his prized possession. Haleys literacy and command
of language earned the respect of his shipmates and they soon
had him performing a variety of tasks, chief among them was
ghost-writing love letters to girlfriends back home in the states.
The greatest enemy the crew of Haleys ammunition ship
had to fight was the boredom that pervaded their routine tasks
and the diversions of books and writing kept the Tennessean
from losing his mind in the long days of World War II. As time
passed, Haley progressed from writing letters to adventure stories
to pass the time and add to the onboard material available to
his shipmates. With each project, he progressed getting a little
better each time. It wasnt long before Haley began farming
his stories out to editors and collecting what he said were
hundreds of rejection slips from various magazines, but he did
see some of his articles make it into publication. His reputation
in the Coast Guard as a writer grew and, in 1949, paid off when
the Tennessean was appointed as the first Chief Journalist of
the service. He stayed in that position for ten years working
everyday on his writing talents and developing the department
to which he had been assigned.
In 1959, with his twenty years served, U.S. Coast Guard Chief
Journalist Alex P. Haley retired from the service to begin seeking
a career as a full-time writer in the commercial market.
Alex Haleys career stuttered and stumbled at first like
all writers, but soon found a market for his maritime adventure
stories in the mens magazines of the day. Since joining
the Coast Guard and traveling the Pacific, he had developed
a life-long love of the sea and thoroughly enjoyed writing on
the subject. It was then that his writing style gained the attention
of Readers Digest editors, who began giving Haley assignments
writing biographical stories or pieces on people who had lived
His experience freelancing paid off when he did an interview
with famous jazz musician Miles Davis that began Haleys
interviews with Playboy magazine. Haleys succeeding interviews
took him to some of the most interesting characters of the day
and brought him into contact with the controversial black leader
Malcom X, who was becoming an influential voice among black
followers of Islam in America. The interview caught the attention
of a publisher, who asked Haley to see if he could put together
a book on the black leader.
In 1962, Haley spent most of a year interviewing Malcom X and
spent the next year writing the book, which was entitled: "The
Autobiography of Malcom X ". Two weeks after the manuscript
was written, Malcom X was assassinated and Haleys work
became the only official record of his life.
Following the publication of the book, Haley was sent to London
on assignment and, always a prolific student of history, took
time to see the sights while he was there, which included the
visit to the British Museum, where he found the Rosetta Stone.
When he returned stateside, Haley thought long and hard remembering
the stories on his front porch in Henning, TN and the names
and words his relatives had spoken. In those old stories lay
the strange words Kin-tay, Ko, and Kamby Bolongo, which had
been passed from generation to generation from father to daughter
and daughter to son.
To ensure he had the names and words right, he flew to Kansas
City to see the only surviving relative from the story-telling
days of his childhood. Though ill and despondent somewhat, his
cousin Georgia immediately came to life when he asked her of
the stories and the three cryptic words he had heard all of
the women repeat in their stories of the family.
During this time, Haley began running short of money and wrote
a letter to Readers Digest co-founder Dewitt Wallace,
who arranged for Haley to receive a $300 monthly check and reasonable
travel expenses to help cover the growing research bills.
For the next year, Haley stayed in the National Archives in
Washington and visited the migratory route his family had taken
as slaves living in the South. He rolled through entire collections
of microfilm at the archives in D.C., the Library of Congress,
and the Daughters of the American Revolution Library. His epiphany
came when he stumbled across the 1800 census listing a blacksmith
by the name of Tom Murray and listing Haleys immediate
family members as they had been told to him by his grandmother.
With the information backing up the stories from his grandmother,
Haley did what he thought would be the only logical thing living
in New York. He went to the United Nations building.
"I started looking up the representatives from African
nations at the U.N.," said Haley, "and began trying
to ask them about the words Kin-tay, Ko and Kamby Bolongo and
all of them just shook their head and said they had never heard
them before. I had never really lost my Tennessee accent and
thought that maybe I was mispronouncing them or that the words
had evolved through the generations to the point that they werent
real African words anymore."
Haley was joined in his quest by his boyhood friend and master
researcher George Sims from Henning, who ran down a number of
African scholars that seriously studied what Haley had gathered
in his research.
From that point forward, Haley accomplished what no other American
descendant of slaves had ever done. From more than 50 libraries
on three continents and 12 years of research, he not only managed
to track down, through Lloyds of London, the ship that had brought
his enslaved ancestor Kunte Kinte to Annapolis, MD, but was
able to locate the Mandinka tribe and the town of Juffure where
he learned of his ancestors family and their history prior
to enslavement. Haley returned to New York from Africa and learned
that his last link to the front-porch stories of his youth had
passed away in Kansas City.
Haley began work and assembled the epic work entitled quite
simply "Roots: The Saga of an American Family."
Although he was a noted American journalist, Haley became an
overnight success in 1976 selling more than one million copies.
A year later Haleys work had won many awards for the book,
including the National Book Award and received a special Pulitzer
Prize. Weeks after it was in publication the American Broadcasting
Company turned it into a mini-series, which was a commercial
broadcast experiment of sorts. It had never before been attempted
outside of public broadcasting or Britain, but a blinding snowstorm
that crippled much of the nation from Jan. 23 to Jan. 30, 1977,
kept most Americans at home and more than 130 million people
watched the epic production making the mini-series at
that time the most watched program in American television history.
Haley went on to write a few more works, but none that so captured
the attention of readers around the world. The Tennessean married
twice in his life and had three children. In later years, he
moved back to his home state but chose to live in the East Tennessee
town of Norris, where he made his home.
While his book was considered a classic in American literature,
it was subject to numerous criticisms over the years from both
sides of the racial aisle, even though Haley admitted in the
book itself that he took editorial license in the telling of
his story as no one was still alive from the historical eras
of which he wrote.
He is even quoted in an interview for a magazine that "Roots"
was a study in the oral history of a people saying; "What
Roots gets at in whatever form, is that it touches
the pulse of how alike we human beings are when you get down
to the bottom, beneath these man-imposed differences."
During a discussion in 1991, Haley also stated that critics,
who attacked the books historical accuracy were those
who had little or no respect for the keeping of oral traditions.
"It wasnt just a trait among the Africans,"
said Haley, "but among so many peoples that one was chosen
to memorize the family histories of their communities and the
events of the day, even in the Western world. The bards of the
Celts, the Navaho sages, and countless other cultures who had
not developed written languages relied on these individuals
to keep these records and it became a highly developed skill
requiring years of training. Those who would criticize oral
traditions have little or no knowledge of their own peoples
Haley went on to say that he hoped "Roots" would help
bring people of all races together in America and take away
the stigma associated with slavery in the nations past.
"All races share in the blame when it comes to the practice
of slavery," said Haley, "and Roots I
hope is remembered as an example of how no one should ever be
ashamed of their origins, regardless of how humble they may
appear on the surface. It is never the slaves who bear the shame
of slavery. It is the enslaver and there were many black men
and women who made substantial contributions to America during
and after the era of slavery had ended in the nation. Those
individuals should be recognized for their accomplishments and
their lives documented because their hands and minds helped
shape the America we know today as much as those of other races."
The phenomenal success of the book allowed the Tennessean to
become a leader in literacy and educational projects across
the nation. Alex Haley remained active in many noteworthy projects
and in Knoxville, where he donated money and time to various
charitable causes. Alex Palmer Haley was in Seattle, WA. when
he passed away suddenly on Feb. 10, 1992. The Tennesseans
body was returned to Henning, TN and ceremoniously laid to rest
near his early childhood home.
Alex Haleys death came as a surprise to many people. His
home, where the front-porch served as the birthplace of the
book "Roots", was eventually turned into a state historical
site and the ten-room bungalow has been restored to its original
form when Haley lived there. The Alex Haley State House Museum
is the first state-owned historic site devoted entirely to a
black Tennessean. It is located at 200 South Church Street in
Henning an features numerous photographs and memorabilia from
his life. For more information or directions to the home, you
can call them at (901) 738-2240. There is a small admission
On July 10, 2000 the United States Coast Guard ,after a major
overhaul and refitting, ceremoniously renamed a 282-foot rescue
ship the USCGC Alex Haley to honor their first chief journalist.
In attendance at the event, was U.S. Secretary of Transportation
Rodney Slater, Haleys first wife Nancy, his oldest son
William Haley, daughter Lydia Haley, sister Lois Butts Haley,
brother Julius Haley and daughter-in-law Doris Haley. Haleys
other son George Haley, who was then serving as U.S. Ambassador
to Gambia, was unable to attend. The USCGC Alex Haley is homeported
in Kodiak, AL, where her primary duties are fisheries-enforcement
and search-and-rescue in the Bering Sea, Gulf of Alaska, and
There are other sites across the nation honoring the Tennessean
and an Alex P. Haley Park in Knoxville features a larger than
Haleys work continues to attract readers and, following
his death, director Spike Lee made Haleys first book "The
Autobiography of Malcom X" into a film. In addition, there
is an anthology available of Haleys interviews, which
in addition to those mentioned, also features interviews with
Martin L. King, Jr., Johnny Carson and other famous celebrities
of the day.
There is numerous biographical information on Haley, but, as
is expected, the best can be found in the book "Roots:
The Saga of an American Family."
The quotes from Haley in this story are taken from an interview
I had with him in 1991 while he was a guest host on the Knoxville
Bicentennial broadcast "Celebrate Knoxville ."
One can not help but note Alex Haleys impact on American
society and a rare irony in the world of literature. Just as
the Greek slave Aesop created an entire genre of writing with
his fables that would come to be known as childrens literature,
Alex Haley would do the same with the story of his familys
slave origins and the field of genealogy. The book "Roots"
ignited a firestorm of interest in the subject and is credited
with turning what was once seen as an elite hobby into an annual
multi-billion dollar global industry. In fact, polls today consistently
show the number one use of the Internet by millions of American
families and others around the world is genealogy.