​​​​​​​Hidden History: The “Roots” of Groundbreaking Author Alex Haley

Local News

He’s best known for writing the book behind the mini-series “Roots.” Alex Haley once said, “Roots is not just a saga of my family. It is the symbolic saga of a people.” He also said, “In my writing, as much as I could, I tried to find the good, and praise it.” Forty years after “Roots” was released, we went searching for the good in Henning, Tennessee, Alex Haley’s childhood home. Local 24 News Anchor Katina Rankin reports.

When you hear the name Alex Haley one automatically thinks of the movie, “Roots.” His 1976 book was turned into a mini-series. That mini-series broke viewing records. A whopping 130-million people tuned in to watch.

“It was bigger than the Superbowl on television,” said Alex Haley Museum Site Manager Richard Griffin.

The book and mini-series raised public awareness of African-American history, and it began an interest in family “roots”, genealogy.

“Alex’s family was prominent in this area,” said Griffin.

But just who was Alex Haley? Haley grew up in Henning, Tennessee, about an hour northeast of Memphis.

“Alex’s mother never wanted him to forget his upbringing. So, she gave him the middle name of Palmer, which is her maiden name,” said Griffin.

Richard Griffin knows the story of Alex Haley all too well.

“Tell me about this front porch.” Katina Rankin asked.

“His grandmother sat there. Aunt Liz and Cousin Millie, and these three ladies taught Alex about his family,” said Griffin.

Griffin is the site manager and curator of the Alex Haley Museum and Interpretive Center.

Walk through the museum and the first thing you’ll see is Alex Haley’s director’s chair from the filming of “Roots.” You’ll even see a famous hat.

“This is Chicken George’s hat. Everybody knows Chicken George. You have to stop and take a look at the hat,” Katina Rankin said.

You’ll see a short documentary about his life playing and exhibitions covering Haley’s life including this life preserver from the Coast Guard boat commissioned in Haley’s honor.

“Alex spent twenty (20) years in the Coast Guard,” Griffin said.

You’ll even see this.

“Tell me about this slave ship,” Katina Rankin said.

“Alex Haley put Henning on the map,” said Henning Mayor Baris Douglas.

Douglas remembers Alex Haley from when Haley would visit his grandparents.

“Every time we’d see him, he’d typically have on a flannel shirt, khaki pants, loafers, nothing extraordinary,” said Mayor Douglas.

Douglas even remembers a few of his favorite side dishes from when Haley dined at his grandparent’s home. 

“Greens, cornbread, sweet potatoes. and things like that,” said Mayor Douglas.

We chatted with the Mayor in the lobby of the Alex Haley Museum. Just a stone’s throw away …  “That’s where he started it all,” said Alex Haley Museum’s Former Executive Director Charletta Campbell Norfolk.

You’ll see the boyhood home of Alex Haley. This is where his mother, Bertha Haley, raised the future author. The family dining room, the kitchen left as it once was. And, the parlor which most of us call living rooms today, still the same. I sat in that parlor with the Museum’s Former Executive Director Charletta Campbell Norfolk. She shared family stories and memories of the literary giant, like those of his father.

“He appreciated his hometown of Henning, Tennessee,” said Norfolk.

Alex Haley followed in his father’s footsteps and attended a Historically Black College in Mississippi, Alcorn State. A year later, he enrolled at Elizabeth City State College in North Carolina. After that … “He came home and told his dad and stepmom, ‘I’m withdrawing from school.’, correct? That’s when he went into the Coast Guard,” said Katina Rankin.

“Yes,” replied Norfolk.

His father felt Haley needed discipline and convinced him to enlist in the military. When Haley turned eighteen (18), he began a twenty (20) year career in the United States Coast Guard. During his service, Haley taught himself the craft of writing stories. While enlisted, sailors paid him to write love letters to their girlfriends. After World War II, he became the first chief journalist in the Coast Guard, a rating created just for him in recognition of his literary ability.

Of his many works, the autobiography of Malcolm X, one Norfolk says took him a while to write because trust had to be established between the two men. And then … “One morning out of the blue, he (Malcom X) called Alex like at 4 in the morning and told him, ‘I trust you 70%’ and just hung up the phone,” said Norfolk.

Stories like that often told to Norfolk in person by Alex Haley himself.

Haley eventually became a senior editor for Reader’s Digest Magazine. He conducted the first interview for Playboy Magazine on Jazz musician Miles Davis which appeared in this September 1962 issue. Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Playboy interview with Haley was the longest King ever granted to any publication.

But, let’s get back to his “roots”.

“I mean it took 12 years for him to do this research,” said Norfolk.

Twelve (12) years for him to trace his family history going back to slavery days. It started with the story of Kunta Kinte who was kidnapped in the Gambia in West Africa and transported to the province of Maryland in the United States to be sold as a slave. From this family tree in the museum, you can see Haley claimed to be a seventh-generation descendant of Kunta Kinte. 

And Haley said … “In order for me to really tell this story, I’m going to have to make a trip over to Gambia,” said Norfolk. “He went back to Gambia and did get on a slave ship and rode the water just to see what if felt like.” 

Haley said the most emotional moment of his life occurred when he stood at the site in Annapolis, Maryland, where his ancestor had arrived from Africa in chains exactly two hundred (200) years before.

In 1992 Haley died from a heart attack.

“I remember getting that phone call and them telling me ‘Alex Haley had died.’,” said Norfolk.

“The family walked behind the hearse from the church which is right up the hill here, behind the hearse and came to the burial site, ” said Griffin. “(They) Brought back West African soil from the actual place Alex’s family is from. They sprinkled soil over Alex’s body… The family had to dance around the open tomb in order for his spirit to be released and that is what happened that day, February 15th, 1992.”

Haley was buried here in Henning, Tennessee, in the front yard of his boyhood home. And, in his words, “My fondest hope is that ‘Roots’ may start black, white, brown, red, yellow people digging back for their own roots. Man, that would make me feel (ninety) 90 feet tall.”

It’s important to note not everyone believed Haley’s story. In fact, he was sued by a Mississippi writer, Margaret Walker. That lawsuit was dismissed. But another lawsuit filed by Harold Courlander was successful. Whether you believe parts of the story was plagiarized or not, this is fact, Haley is one of the best-selling African-American authors in history from his book, “Roots.”

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