Alex Haley

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 stone’s 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 grandmother’s 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 master’s 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 child’s 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 Haley’s father returned from New York to take over the lumber mill and get the business in order.
The grief his grandfather’s 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 grandmother’s family – the Murrays. Cynthia Palmer’s 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, it’s 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 old stories.
"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 black community.
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 ship’s small library and books borrowed from shipmates. While in school, Haley’s father had insisted that his son learn how to type and he soon found that his portable typewriter became his prized possession. Haley’s 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 Haley’s 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 wasn’t 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 Haley’s career stuttered and stumbled at first like all writers, but soon found a market for his maritime adventure stories in the men’s 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 Reader’s Digest editors, who began giving Haley assignments writing biographical stories or pieces on people who had lived notable lives.
His experience freelancing paid off when he did an interview with famous jazz musician Miles Davis that began Haley’s interviews with Playboy magazine. Haley’s 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 Haley’s 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 Reader’s 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 Haley’s 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 weren’t 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 ancestor’s 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 Haley’s 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 book’s historical accuracy were those who had little or no respect for the keeping of oral traditions.
"It wasn’t 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 people’s past. "
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 nation’s 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 Tennessean’s body was returned to Henning, TN and ceremoniously laid to rest near his early childhood home.

Alex Haley’s 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 fee.
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, Haley’s first wife Nancy, his oldest son William Haley, daughter Lydia Haley, sister Lois Butts Haley, brother Julius Haley and daughter-in-law Doris Haley. Haley’s 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 North Pacific.
There are other sites across the nation honoring the Tennessean and an Alex P. Haley Park in Knoxville features a larger than life statue.
Haley’s work continues to attract readers and, following his death, director Spike Lee made Haley’s first book "The Autobiography of Malcom X" into a film. In addition, there is an anthology available of Haley’s 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 Haley’s 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 children’s literature, Alex Haley would do the same with the story of his family’s 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.