Haley Heritage Square History
Alex Palmer Haley was born on Aug. 11, 1921 in Ithaca, NY to Bertha George and Simon Alexander Haley. Bertha was studying music at The Ithaca Conservatory while her husband was working on his Masters Degree in Agriculture at Cornell University when Bertha became pregnant. The couple had married in Henning, Tennessee.
Simon Haley left Alex and his wife with her mother and father after Alex’s birth. He returned to Ithaca, New York to finish his master’s thesis at Cornell so he might better be able to provide for their family. Bertha’s father, Will Palmer, owned the W.E. Palmer Lumber Company in Henning. He often took Alex with him to the lumber mill. Will left an impression on Alex that he would carry throughout his life. When Will suddenly passed away in 1926, Alex’s father returned from New York to take over the lumber mill and tend to business.
The grief of his grandfather’s death brought Alex and his grandmother, Cynthia, closer together. Cynthia shared many stories of her family, the Murrays, with Alex. Cynthia’s sisters and cousins would sit on the front porch in the evening and tell stories that Alex grew to enjoy.
"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."
Several years later, Bertha had more sons, George and Julius. Simon Haley eventually sold the family lumber company and began teaching at the A&M College in Normal, Alabama. When Alex was 10 years old, Bertha Haley passed away. She was only 36-years old, but had been suffering with illness since the family had moved from Henning.
Simon married college professor Zeona Hatcher two years later. Zeona gave birth to a baby girl, and she spent her time educating the three Haley brothers. The boys continued to visit their grandmother in Henning during the summertime.
Alex Haley graduated from high school and enrolled in college at the age of 15. Two years later, he enlisted into the United States Coast Guard as a mess boy working in the kitchen. An avid reader, Alex read everything in the ship’s small library and books borrowed from shipmates while in the South Pacific. He used his portable typewriter to write often. Shipmates asked him to ghostwrite love letters to girlfriends back home in the states. Haley progressed from writing letters to adventure stories to pass the time and provide reading material for his shipmates. Haley sent his stories to magazines, many of which were rejected, but he did get some articles published. In 1949, he was appointed the first Chief Journalist of the service. Haley worked in that capacity for ten years.
After 20 years of service, Haley retired and began seeking a career as a freelance writer in the commercial market in 1959. A men’s magazine began carrying his maritime adventure stories. Due to his time in the Coast Guard, Haley had developed a deep love of the sea and enjoyed writing about it. He grabbed the attention of Reader’s Digest editors, who gave Haley assignments writing stories about the lives of notable people.
Haley interviewed people such as Miles Davis and Malcolm X. The latter interview caught the attention of a publisher, who asked Haley to write a book on the black leader. Haley spent 1962 interviewing Malcolm X and spent the next year writing "The Autobiography of Malcolm X ". Malcolm X was assassinated two weeks after the manuscript was written. Haley’s book became the only official record of his life.
After publishing his book, Haley was sent to London on assignment where he visited the British Museum and found the Rosetta Stone. Following the trip, he thought hard to remember the stories on his front porch in Henning, Tennessee and the names and words his relatives had spoken. The words Kin-tay, Ko, and Kamby Bolongo were common in the old stories and had been passed from generation to generation. Haley flew to Kansas City to visit the only surviving relative from the story-telling days of his childhood. Although she was ill, his cousin Georgia came to life when he asked her of the stories and the three words he had heard repeated in the family stories. During this period of his life, Haley ran short of money and wrote a letter to Reader’s Digest’s Dewitt Wallace, who arranged for Haley to receive a $300 monthly check and some travel expenses to help with the research bills. During the next year, Haley used in the National Archives in Washington and visited the migratory route his family had taken as slaves living in the South. He researched in the microfilm at the archives in D.C., the Library of Congress, and the Daughters of the American Revolution Library. Eventually he came across the 1800 census listing a blacksmith named Tom Murray and Haley’s immediate family members as his grandmother had told them to him. Assisted by childhood friend George Sims from Henning, Haley accomplished what no other American descendant of slaves had ever done. He researched in more than 50 libraries on three continents for 12 years, and learned about the ship that had brought his enslaved ancestor Kunte Kinte to Annapolis, Maryland. He also located the Mandinka tribe and the town of Juffure where he found his ancestor’s family. Haley was able to learn a great deal about his family’s history prior to enslavement. He returned to New York from Africa and learned that his cousin Georgia had passed away.
Haley published his work in "Roots: The Saga of an American Family." He became a huge success in 1976 selling more than one million copies. A year passed and Haley’s book had won many awards, including the National Book Award, and received a special Pulitzer Prize. Weeks after it was published, the American Broadcasting Company turned the book into a mini-series. A snowstorm kept most of the country at home from January 23 to January 30, 1977, and more than 130 million people watched the production. It was the most watched program in American television history at that time.
Haley published a few more works. He married twice in his life and had three children. In his later years, he moved to Norris, Tennessee.
Haley became a leader in literacy and educational projects across the country and remained active in charitable causes in Knoxville. Alex Palmer Haley passed away suddenly on February 10,1992 in Seattle, Washington. His body was laid to rest near his early childhood home in Henning, Tennessee. Haley donated many of his papers and writings to the University of Tennessee Knoxville.
The Alex Haley statue was designed by sculptress Tina Allen and cast in bronze in New York City. It weighs 4,200 pounds and was dedicated in February 1998 during Black History Month. It is the largest statue of an African American in the country.