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Alexander Murray Palmer Haley (August 11, 1921 – February 10, 1992) was an African-American writer. He also had Irish and, according to his own telling, some Cherokee ancestry. He was born in Ithaca, New York. He is best known for The Autobiography of Malcolm X, which he helped Malcolm X write, and his book Roots: The Saga of an American Family, which was about his family history and inspired a television mini-series. He died of a heart attack in Seattle, Washington.
Haley family lineage
Members of his family lineage that can be confirmed:
- Parents: Simon Alexander Haley [1892-1973] married 1919 1st wife Bertha George Palmer [1897-1932]
- Paternal Grandparents: Alex Haley [1845-1918] and 2nd wife Queen Jackson [1857-1941] Natural daughter of James Jackson of Alabama [1822-1879]
- Maternal Grandparents:Cynthia Babica [Murray] [1875-1949] married to William Edward Palmer [1872-1926][Son of George Palmer and Salena Groves]
- Maternal Great Grandparents:Tom Lea/Lea Murray [b.1833-?] married 1859 to Arena Holt [1841-1908] [Daughter of "Hillian" (b.1815)]
- Maternal Great Great Grandparents: "Chicken George" Lea [1806-1890] married Mathilda McGreggor Murray Lea [b.1806-?]
According to Haley, he based his novel Roots on oral tradition and research, including a visit to Africa.
About the first third of the book is of Haley's possible ancestor, Kunta Kinte, growing up in Africa in the 1700s. This part of the book describes the culture he lived in.
When Kinte is a teenager, he is kidnapped and taken across the Atlantic Ocean to Annapolis, Maryland. He is sold in Spotslvania County Virginia to John Waller and then to his brother William Waller. He tries to escape and fails. Part of his foot is cut off as punishment and so he cannot run away again. He marries a female slave cook named Bell. They have a daughter Kizzie who is sold at age sixteen. She is raped by Tom Lea and gives birth to a son, "Chicken George" Lea. Chicken George becomes a famous cockfighter, meaning he trains chickens for people to bet on as they fight. George marries and has six children, but his father sells him to a British man who takes him overseas. While George is away, his family is sold to a slave trader who sells them to the Murray family of Alamance County, North Carolina. George eventually returns to them. After the US Civil War of 1861-1865 rather than sharecrop, the family moves to Henning Tennessee. Chicken George's granddaughter Cynthia marries Will Palmer and they become Alex Haley's grandparents.
Roots won a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book award. It is unusual for a novel to do both.
At first, Haley said Roots was not a novel but non-fiction. But when scholars looked into his facts, they found many of them were wrong. Today, scholars think that the griot, the African scholar who talked to Haley, made up parts of the story. They think Haley was guessing or imagining things as well. Later, Haley would also admit that he copied parts of his book from a 1967 book called The African.
Even though the book is not historically accurate, American scholars still say it is one of the most important novels in the country because it inspired African Americans to write more about Africa and slavery.
Factual accuracy questions
Trying to confirm the facts in Haley novel in regards to Africa and the Waller, Lea, and Murray families raised doubts. Ironically, the Millses discovered a better fit to the Haley oral history in the written record than Haley himself had found. Dr. William Waller's father was Colonel William Waller, who owned a slave named Hopping George, a description consistent with a foot injury. Colonel Waller also owned a slave named Isbell, who may be the Bell in Haley family legend. Tom Lea's father lived in Spotsylvania County, Virginia, and he may have purchased some of Haley's ancestors from the Wallers. When the Lea family moved to North Carolina, they would have taken their slaves with them. The Leas lived in close proximity to the Murrays and Holts, and there are three Kizzies associated with the Lea and Murray families in the post-Civil War records.
Historian Henry Louis Gates Jr. was a friend of Haley, but years after Haley's death, Gates acknowledged doubts about the author's claims:
Most of us feel it's highly unlikely that Alex found the village whence his ancestors sprang. Roots is a work of the imagination rather than strict historical scholarship. It was an important event because it captured everyone's imagination."Gates later hosted the TV series African American Lives and Finding Your Roots, which used DNA testing to corroborate family histories and genealogies. Haley wrote another novel in regard to his paternal grandmother Queen [Jackson] Haley but died before he could finish it; it was published posthumously as Queen: The Story of an American Family. Ironically Subsequent DNA testing of Alex Haley's nephew Chris Haley revealed that Alec Haley, Alex's paternal grandfather (and Queen Haley's husband) was most likely descended from Scottish ancestors via William Harwell Baugh, an overseer of an Alabama slave plantation.
- Melinda Henneberger (February 14, 1993). TELEVISION; The Tangled Roots of Alex Haley. New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/1993/02/14/books/television-the-tangled-roots-of-alex-haley.html. Retrieved July 19, 2020.
- Rita Rubin (April 6, 2009). DNA testing: 'Roots' author Haley rooted in Scotland, too. ABC News Go. https://abcnews.go.com/Technology/story?id=7272987&page=1. Retrieved July 19, 2020.
- Find a Grave memorial
- John Dugdale (February 9, 2017). "Roots of the problem: the controversial history of Alex Haley's book". the Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2017/feb/09/alex-haley-roots-reputation-authenticity.
- [Mills, Elizabeth Shown; Mills, Gary B. (March 1984). "The Genealogist's Assessment of Alex Haley's Roots". National Genealogical Society Quarterly. 72 (1).]
- Beam, Alex. "The Prize Fight Over Alex Haley's Tangled 'Roots'", Boston Globe, October 30, 1998.
- BBC News March 1,2009 accessed September 13, 2018
- Texas Research Ramblers Volume XXIX Number 1 Spring 2014 accessed September 13, 2018