Hidden History: Visiting Author Alex Haley’s “Roots” in Henning, Tennessee

Local News

Alex Haley is perhaps best known for writing the book behind the ABC mini-series “Roots.” More than 40 years after “Roots” was released, we went searching for hidden history behind the popular author in his childhood home of Henning, Tennessee, just 50 miles Northeast of Memphis.

In 1977, a record-breaking 130-million people tuned in to watch the mini-series based on Alex Haley’s groundbreaking book.

“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 and DNA!

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

But just who was Alex Haley? Born on August 11, 1921, Haley grew up Henning, Tennessee. 

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

“Tell me about this front porch,” said Anchor Katina Rankin. 

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

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

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

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

“Alex spent 20 years in the Coast Guard. This is where he did all of his writing,” said Griffin.

You’ll even see this.

“Tell me about this slave ship,” remarked Rankin.

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

Baris Douglas is the Mayor of Henning. He 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 Douglas.

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

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

We chatted with the Mayor in the lobby of the Alex Haley Museum. Just a stone’s throw away …

“His mates there. That’s where he started it all,” said Alex Haley Museum’s Former Executive Director Charletta Campbell Norfolk. 

… Haley’s childhood home. His mother, Bertha Haley, also grew up in Henning. The family dining room, the breakfast area and the kitchen left as it once was. And the parlor still the same! Charletta Campbell Norfolk, the Museum’s former executive director, shared Haley family stories and memories of the literary giant.

Thursday night, Anchor Katina Rankin speaks in-depth with Charletta Campbell Norfolk who ran the Alex Haley Museum from 1988 to 1993. She knew Haley personally and spent time with him on his farm. Those personal stories Alex Haley shared with her Thursday night on Local 24 News at 10:00 p.m.  

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