Remembering Alex Haley: ‘Roots,’ Kunta Kinte & Genealogy

History of Roots by Alex Haley

Today is the 22nd anniversary of the death of Alex Haley (1921-1992), the author who wrote the popular African American novel Roots: The Saga of an American Family. The publication of Haley’s novel in 1976, and the subsequent ABC television miniseries based on his book that aired in January 1977, spurred tremendous interest in genealogy in the United States.

photo of the cover of the first edition of Alex Haley’s novel “Roots”

Photo: cover of the first edition of Alex Haley’s novel “Roots.” Credit: Wikipedia.

Haley’s award-winning novel was a fictionalized account of his own African American family history, tracing his roots all the way back to an African ancestor, Kunta Kinte, who was kidnapped in the Gambia in the 1760s, shipped across the Atlantic and sold into slavery in Maryland. Haley spent ten years researching his black genealogy, relying on both oral history and documentation to support his claim that he was a seventh-generation descendant of Kunta Kinte.

Both the book and the television miniseries were enormously popular and successful. The novel was translated into 37 languages and has sold millions of copies around the world. Haley was awarded a special Pulitzer Prize for his book in 1977. The eight-part TV miniseries fascinated the American public and was watched by a then-record 130 million viewers.

Genealogy Research Suddenly Skyrockets!

After reading Roots and watching the television miniseries, Americans—both black and white—wanted to find out more about their own family roots. Requests to the National Archives for genealogical material quadrupled the week after the TV show ended. The number of genealogical societies in the U.S. skyrocketed. Libraries and government offices received a steady stream of requests to review books, official records, and microfilm collections.

In the spring of 1977 this newspaper article reported on the growing popularity of genealogy.

Many Are Climbing Family Trees, Morning Star newspaper article 19 April 1977

Morning Star (Rockford, Illinois), 19 April 1977, page 14

According to the article:

The increasing trend toward genealogical research apparently started three or four years ago, picked up stimulation in the Bicentennial year [1976] and was spurred again by Alex Haley’s “Roots” and the tremendously successful ABC television series based on his book.

That series, the most-watched ever on television, led thousands of blacks and whites alike to a search for their own roots. The National Archives reported that its mail requests quadrupled in the week after the series.

A decade later, newspaper articles such as this one were still crediting Haley for the public’s interest in genealogy.

article about Alex Haley and his novel "Roots" spurring interest in genealogy, Springfield Union newspaper article 13 October 1986

Springfield Union (Springfield, Massachusetts), 13 October 1986, page 2

Ten days before he died, Haley gave a talk at Hope College in Holland, Michigan. A local newspaper, the Afro-American Gazette from nearby Grand Rapids, published this remembrance after his death.

Alex Haley--the End of an Era, Afro-American Gazette newspaper article 1 March 1992

Afro-American Gazette (Grand Rapids, Michigan), 1 March 1992, page 1

The news article begins this way:

Alex Haley was a man of vision—a man who knew [that], as individuals and a nation, [we] must know where we have been in order to know where we are going.

And when he died…he left that vision behind as a legacy to a world starving for truth, starving for direction, starving for peace and understanding.

Alex Haley’s Obituary

This obituary, published the day after Haley died, said he “inspired people of all races to search for their ancestors” and stated:

Mr. Haley’s warmhearted and rich descriptions of his ancestors’ lives set off a wave of interest in genealogy, lasting long after the book faded from best-seller lists.

Author Alex Haley, Won Pulitzer, (Dies) at 70, Boston Herald newspaper article 11 February 1992

Boston Herald (Boston, Massachusetts), 11 February 1992, page 53

To find out more about Alex Haley’s life and influence—and to begin your own search for your family roots—dig into GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives, a collection of more than 6,500 newspapers featuring the largest obituary archive online. Also, search our African American newspaper collection to trace your black family history.

Find & Preserve Your Family’s Stories

I grew up hearing the old family stories.

There was no television in New Hampshire in those days, but my grandfather remembered the family stories and passed them down.

collage showing picture of an Indian attack and the title page of Elizabeth Hanson's account of being captured by Indians in 1724

Credit: Wikipedia & Internet Archive

As kids there was one particular story we always wanted to hear every night: the story of when Indians attacked the family cabin in 1724. This story has been passed down in the family for almost 290 years!

I wondered if there was a contemporary account of this in the old newspapers of the day. After a steady search, I found nothing about the attack on my ancestors’ cabin published in 18th century newspapers.

But—I did find this, in an 1825 newspaper.

ad for Elizabeth Hanson's book about being captured by the Indians in 1724, New Hampshire Republican newspaper advertisement 25 January 1825

New Hampshire Republican (Dover, New Hampshire), 25 January 1825, page 10

One hundred years after the attack occurred, an announcement about my ancestor Elizabeth Hanson’s story was published in the newspaper.

She had written about her ordeal, and eventually her personal account was finally published.

title page for Elizabeth Hanson's book about being captured by Indians in 1724

Credit: Internet Archive

I already knew about the story—but now I had a near-contemporary account and it was the same story that my grandfather told us, almost word for word. What a wonderful keepsake to have and pass down to keep her story alive!

Search the old newspapers and other online genealogy resources and get your family’s stories.

Find what has been written about them for the past 300 years.

Don’t let your family’s history be lost.

Read the Obituaries of the Cast of ‘I Love Lucy’

The memorable comedy I Love Lucy ran from 15 October 1951 to 6 May 1957 and re-runs are still broadcast today.

photo of the four actors from the "I Love Lucy" TV show

Credit: Wikipedia

They were our television family, watched and enjoyed in living rooms across America.

Read more about the four veteran actors who starred in I Love Lucy in GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives. (Note: you must be logged into GenealogyBank to access the content via the links below.)

Lucille Ball (6 August 1911 – 26 April 1989)

Obituary: Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 27 April 1989, page 88.

Desi Arnaz (2 March 1917 – 2 December 1986)

Obituary: Mobile Register (Mobile, Alabama), 3 December 1986, page 12.

Vivian Vance (26 July 1909 – 17 August 1979)

Obituary: Dallas Morning News (Dallas, Texas) 18 August 1979, page 27.

William Frawley (26 February 1887 – 3 March 1966)

Obituary: Dallas Morning News (Dallas, Texas), 4 March 1966, page D5.

Remembering ‘Roots’ Author Alexander Murray Palmer Haley

Alex Haley (1921-1992) was a famous African American author who had more impact on genealogy than any other person in the past 50 years. He was born 11 August 1921. Haley would be almost 92 years old if he were alive today.

After the release of his book Roots: The Saga of an American Family (New York City, New York: Doubleday) 37 years ago—on 17 August 1976—and the launch of the eight-part television mini-series on ABC-TV in January 1977, the genealogy world was forever changed.

He was 55 years old when Roots was published.

Alex Haley Roots Book Cover

Image credit: Wikipedia.org

From that point on the number of genealogical societies in the U.S. skyrocketed from 400 societies to over 4,000. Public libraries and state archives across the country were flooded with family history researchers using their book and microfilm collections.

Some major milestones to keep in mind: the first laptop wasn’t invented until 1981 (Osborne); Google was launched in 1995; and GenealogyBank was born 19 October 2006.

One man can make a big difference.

Recently Alex Haley’s nephew Christopher Haley participated in a DNA study and was surprised to learn about his Scottish roots. Hosted by Megan Smolenyak, this episode of Roots Television shows the family reunion of the Haley and Baff families:

Christina Applegate Finds Family with GenealogyBank on WDYTYA

Genealogists are relying on newspaper archives more and more to document the stories of their ancestors and trace their family trees. In last night’s episode of Who Do You Think You Are? American actress Christina Applegate used an old article found in GenealogyBank’s Trenton Sunday Times Advertiser (Trenton, New Jersey), 26 August 1934, to learn more about her family history. Notice the family resemblance with her grandmother and great-aunt: Lavina and Delilah Shaw.

collage of a photo of American actress Christina Applegate and a newspaper clipping of her ancestors

Image Credit: Wikipedia and GenealogyBank.com

Dig into GenealogyBank’s newspaper archives and see what you can find out about your ancestry now!

Disclaimer: GenealogyBank is not affiliated with TLC TV Network or the Who Do You Think You Are? television program.

How Is Your Local Genealogical Society Doing?

photo of a presentation made during the 2013 RootsTech genealogical conference

Credit: RootsTech

The Reading Eagle (Reading, Pennsylvania) ran an interesting article about the dropping membership of the Berks County Genealogical Society.

According to the article this local genealogical society is feeling the impact of dropping memberships at the same time interest in genealogy is soaring. Instead of joining local genealogical societies, new genealogists seem to be going directly to the Internet to ask questions, learn the basics of genealogical research and search for their ancestors.

The national genealogical conferences like the Federation of Genealogical Societies and the National Genealogical Society annual conferences have seen a drop-off in attendance since 11 September 2001. Meanwhile the annual RootsTech conferences have seen a surge in attendance during the three years this family history conference has been held.

At the same time, online weekly webinars like the Legacy Family Tree Webinars have 1,000 people attending, and podcasts like the Genealogy Guys Podcast are seeing each episode downloaded over 4,000 times. That is way more than the number of genealogists attending the annual meeting of a large city or state genealogical society…and they are pulling that many of us every week.

How is your local genealogical society doing?

Is it growing?

Is there excitement?

Is it fresh?

Is there a buzz?

When I attended my first genealogical society meetings 50 years ago in the early 1960s—the meetings of the Stamford Genealogical Society (now called the Connecticut Ancestry Society)—the focus was on outreach and training. Their chief projects were having the genealogical society members submit their family tree charts (which were put in binders and cross indexed), and producing the quarterly journal. They were good, effective meetings. We all looked forward to them. It was like an extended family.

The genealogy world changed in 1976 with the publication of Alex Haley’s Roots and the launch of the companion television series in 1977. Genealogy has not been the same since. We went from 200 genealogical societies in the United States to over 4,000 societies.

FamilySearch Indexing has well over 100,000 indexers, all volunteers, who are creating over 1 million indexed genealogy records every day.

How is your local genealogical society doing?

What is your society doing to keep itself fresh and exciting?

Share your ideas and best practices.

Post them here today in the comments.

The Past Tells the Future of Genealogy: Is Anything Really New?

Introduction: Scott Phillips is a genealogical historian and owner of Onward To Our Past® genealogy services. In this guest blog post, Scott researches old newspaper articles to discover that what was new in genealogy 100 or more years ago is still new today.

There is nothing new except that which has been forgotten.

~ Marie Antoinette

This is certainly true in genealogy in a variety of ways. Naturally, we as genealogists spend a great deal of time and effort looking for that which has been forgotten or almost forgotten. We strive to discover, or rediscover actually, family history information every day.

On the other hand, I find it interesting when I hear some of the genealogy “pundits” trumpet all the newest “discoveries” in genealogy, often claiming that they are a harbinger of the end of genealogy as we know it. Some of these latest proclamations had me wondering, so I decided to see what was new (and old, which might have been forgotten) in genealogy through the historical newspapers in the database of GenealogyBank.com.

After a few quick searches, I encountered some terrific genealogy headlines and articles. Every one of them brought home the point that not all that much has changed in the world of genealogy! See if you can place the date of each of the following newspaper articles. Were these historical stories from yesteryear or news articles from today’s newspapers?

  • “Genealogy Study Rapidly Growing.” How often have we heard this? I especially appreciated this newspaper article’s subheadings: “In Recent Years Americans Have Been Making Great Study of the Family Tree” and “Genealogists Working Along New Lines and Startling Results Follow.” Sounds just like something I’d read in the news today.
Genealogy Study Rapidly Growing, San Jose Mercury News newspaper article 16 March 1912

San Jose Mercury News (San Jose, California), 16 March 1912, page 2

This newspaper article was published in 1912!

  • “Forum on computers, genealogy scheduled.” This one really could be from today, the type of article found in just about every genealogy society newsletter and newspaper column on “local happenings.” It is interesting to see the name of Genealogical Computing magazine in this article, and it is fun to see how far we have come in such a short time.
Forum on Computers, Genealogy Scheduled, Dallas Morning News newspaper article 22 September 1984

Dallas Morning News (Dallas, Texas), 22 September 1984, page 20C

While this sounds like today’s genealogy news, this newspaper article was published in 1984!

  • “Of the New Genealogy, Its Enlarged Field of Study. How Genealogy as a Science May Help Us to Help Ourselves.” I wondered if this article might be discussing the role of DNA testing in genealogy today, but not quite… I enjoyed this article especially since it was on a topic near-and-dear to me: that of the needed link between genealogy and the academic world. Plus, this article is about an address given at the 60th anniversary of the New England Historic Genealogist Society by Charles K. Bolton.
Of the New Genealogy, Springfield Republican newspaper article 3 November 1909

Springfield Republican (Springfield, Massachusetts), 3 November 1909, page 15

This newspaper article was published in 1909!

  • “Genealogy business booming national one.” With the business of genealogy booming, it seems to offer good career opportunities. This article was from an advice column and the author seemed to have a pretty decent grasp of genealogy, which was fun to see.
Genealogy Business Booming National One, Dallas Morning News newspaper article 18 July 1981

Dallas Morning News (Dallas, Texas), 18 July 1981, page 33

While this would be good career advice for genealogists today, this newspaper article was actually published in 1981!

  • “Who Was Your Grandfather?” I thought perhaps this was an article for the newest television spinoff of Who Do You Think You Are?
Who Was Your Grandfather? New-Hampshire Patriot newspaper article 27 August 1851

New-Hampshire Patriot (Concord, New Hampshire), 27 August 1851, page 3

While this headline seems right out of today’s news, it’s actually about finding an heir for the deceased Jennings—and the newspaper article was published in 1851!

  • “Old Tombstone Wanted.” Once again, this headline could be from practically any newspaper today; as I read the article I can almost feel the angst of the writer as he pleaded for anyone in the local community who may have known anything at all about the tombstone he was searching for.
Old Tombstone Wanted, Jackson Citizen Patriot newspaper article 23 October 1900

Jackson Citizen Patriot (Jackson, Michigan), 23 October 1900, page 2

While this newspaper article refers to “a genealogical chain” and “the genealogist and all his vagaries,” it was actually published in 1900!

  • “Cousin George’s Decision” The subtitle of this article “He Thought His New Found Relatives Were a Very Shoddy Lot” made me think that this story’s moral is as valid today as when the article was written.
Cousin George's Decision, Daily Alaska Dispatch newspaper article 24 January 1900

Daily Alaska Dispatch (Juneau, Alaska), 24 January 1900, page 2

However, this newspaper article was published in 1900!

  • “Genealogy of Slang.” This article earned its way to being copied and placed on my bulletin board. After all who knows when it might come in handy for me to use the word “Gellibagger”?
Genealogy of Slang, Repository newspaper article 15 March 1890

Repository (Canton, Ohio), 15 March 1890, page 5

While using slang in genealogy might seem like a modern topic, this newspaper article was published in 1890!

Thanks to this trip through the past using historical newspapers, we can see that: 1) genealogy has been in the news a long time; and 2) what was new then is sometimes new today. Truly, “Nothing in Genealogy is as new as that which has been forgotten.” The past is often one of the best places to look for clues to the future.

Jeff Corey & Me: Filling In the Blanks in My Own Life Story

Introduction: Scott Phillips is a genealogical historian and owner of Onward To Our Past® genealogy services. In this guest blog post, Scott researches the history of an old acting professor of his—Jeff Corey—and discovers that filling in the blanks of Jeff’s life story in turn fills in some blanks in his own life history.

If you follow my posts here on the blog for GenealogyBank.com, you read toward the end of my latest article “Finding the Historical Articles That Tell My Ancestor’s Story” that I had discovered a one-line death notice for Jeff Corey. He was one of my favorite professors when I was a student in the “World Campus Afloat” program. While I remember him as my instructor, you might best recall him as Sherriff Ray Bledsoe in the movie Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

Finding Jeff’s death notice led me to think back on many of the stories that this friendly, approachable, and talented professor shared with me when I was a student, and reminded me how important he once had been in my life. Sadly, I realized that although he once mentored me, he actually was a blank in my life history—I really didn’t know very much about Jeff Corey.

These memories prompted me to undertake another search in GenealogyBank.com and see what else I might discover about Jeff. As usual, I wasn’t disappointed and I was able to more fully document and add this person from my own life to my family’s extensive family history and genealogy—filling in the blanks about Jeff’s story in turn filled in a blank in my own life history.

The first thing I did, as any good genealogist does, is look for multiple copies of an individual’s obituary. I was very happy to discover that, while my earlier find had been only that one-sentence death notice, more than a dozen other newspapers provided more extensive obituaries for Jeff Corey. As you might expect for an American actor, one of the best I found was in a Los Angeles newspaper.

Obituaries: Jeff Corey, 88, Los Angeles Times newspaper article 19 August 2002

Los Angeles Times (Los Angeles, California), 19 August 2002

Not only did this extensive obituary list some of Jeff’s best known roles in movies such as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, In Cold Blood, and Little Big Man, it also listed some of his television credits in successful sitcoms such as One Day at a Time and Night Court. Then his life story got really interesting.

I found more information on a time in Jeff’s life that he had only briefly touched on when we talked those many years ago as student and instructor. This was the period when Jeff Corey was blacklisted in Hollywood for more than ten years! His mistreatment was a result of Jeff’s appearance before the infamous Senator Joseph McCarthy and the House Committee on Un-American Activities in the 1950s. Once again, GenealogyBank.com and its database of historical documents proved invaluable.

In GenealogyBank’s U.S. Congressional Serial Set collection, I found the Annual Report for the Committee on Un-American Activities for the year 1952. It included Jeff Corey with the notation: “(Appeared Sept. 21, 1951, and refused to affirm or deny Communist Party membership.)” On the same page you can see many others who also refused to comply with the committee’s demands.

U.S. Congressional Serial Set: Annual report of the Committee on Un-American Activities for the year 1952

U.S. Congressional Serial Set: Annual report of the Committee on Un-American Activities for the year 1952. December 28, 1952. (Original release date.) January 3, 1953.

This action was enough to get Jeff Corey blacklisted and banned from any work in Hollywood for more than ten years. I found Jeff’s comment, related in his obituary, to be most interesting. He said “The only issue was, did you want to just give them their token names so you could continue your career, or not?” He chose not to name any others in Hollywood.

I think you could say that Jeff got the last laugh, though. While I am sure he missed out on a multitude of roles in those ten years—and he did tell me they were some very lean years—he became one of the most sought-after acting coaches in all of Hollywood!

This 1975 California newspaper article reported that some of Jeff’s more notable students were such Hollywood superstars as Jack Nicholson, Anthony Quinn, Jane Fonda, and Kirk Douglas. Needless to say, I was truly impressed by this talented group.

Jeff Corey Sees Simplicity as 'The Logic to Acting,' San Diego Union newspaper article 2 January 1975

San Diego Union (San Diego, California), 2 January 1975, page 47

Jeff’s return to the “big screen” was noted in this 1961 Louisiana newspaper article.

Jeff Corey Back before Cameras after 10 Years, State Times Advocate newspaper article 17 January 1961

State Times Advocate (Baton Rouge, Louisiana), 17 January 1961, page 9

Jeff continued to coach actors even after he returned to his career in acting. I found a wonderful quote praising Jeff by one of my favorite actors, James Coburn, published in this 1979 Ohio newspaper article.

notice about actor Jeff Corey, Plain Dealer newspaper article 31 August 1979

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 31 August 1979, page 142

After I finished my genealogy research on Jeff, I was pleased with how much information I had found and how much more I knew of this cherished professor. I was also happy because I had filled in a delightful segment in my own family history story—one I hope my children and grandchildren will someday enjoy reading as much as I did researching and writing it.

My closing advice is this: Don’t overlook your own life stories while you are working on your genealogy. They can be great fun and lead to many surprising discoveries!

Historian Leads Walter Pierce Park (DC) Cemetery Restoration

Hat’s off to Mary Belcher. A group she organized has been diligently restoring and documenting upwards of 10,000 persons who were buried in the Adams Morgan section of Walter Pierce Park in the District of Columbia.

photo of Mary Belcher leading effort to restore historic District of Columbia cemetery

Photo: Mary Belcher. Credit: WJLA-TV (District of Columbia).

Over time the old grave markers have deteriorated and been lost. Mary’s group is using the older records and evidence found on the site to document each person buried there. No small task.

Watch this news report from local television station WJLA-TV to see what Mary and her group have accomplished so far in their cemetery restoration efforts.

Adams Morgan Cemetery Fight

Sunday Blue Laws, Old Family Memories & U.S. Legislative History

Introduction: Scott Phillips is a genealogical historian and owner of Onward To Our Past® genealogy services. In this guest blog post, Scott explains how “Blue Laws” turned Sundays into very special family days during his childhood.

Sundays always loom large for me each week. I love them now and I really loved them when I was growing up. I am not sure about you, but for me Sunday was a significant family day. I have marvelous memories of our Sundays when I was a youngster. Mom, Dad, grandpa and grandma always said keeping Sundays as family days had a lot to do with what are called “Blue Laws.”

Do you remember these old laws? They are the laws that regulated commerce—and historically other activities—on Sundays. I well remember going to church as a youngster and having everything in town closed up tighter than a drum. Not a single shop was open in my hometown except after twelve noon—and then it was only our one pharmacy and only for a limited number of “essential” items.

So it was that we went right home from church, I fought with my sisters over who got the Sunday newspaper funny pages first, and reveled in the aromas from the kitchen while Mom prepared Sunday supper. If we were lucky the day included a leisurely Sunday Drive and almost always grandparents or other family members over to our house to share in this important meal. Then, if we had been “good” all week, we gathered in the basement around the TV and as a family watched our favorite programs like Disney’s Wonderful World of Color and Bonanza. I remember well my Dad relishing in what he called “do-nothing Sunday afternoons” because all the stores were closed.

While I was working on my family history the other day, I happened across an old article from a 1978 newspaper that explained some of the history of Blue Laws. I was interested to see that, at least according to this newspaper article, the first Blue Law was enacted all the way back in 321 AD by Roman emperor Constantine. Now that is old!

Blue Laws Not New to World, Dallas Morning News newspaper article 18 December 1978

Dallas Morning News (Dallas, Texas), 18 December 1978, page 65

This got me intrigued and it wasn’t long until I came across an article from a 1919 newspaper (published on a Sunday by the way) reporting that the origin of the term Blue Laws came from the fact that they were originally printed on blue paper. However, this “fact” as reported here has been relegated to the category of myth, although this article does highlight the extensive Blue Laws during the 1600s that were some of the most restrictive laws in American history.

The Origin and Nature of the Early Blue Laws Afford Amusing Reading, Sun newspaper article 21 December 1919

Sun (Baltimore, Maryland), 21 December 1919, part 3 page 11

I was enchanted by another historical article in a 1925 newspaper from a regular column that featured “Sunday Drives.” That really took me back, and made me happy to realize that Sunday drives were evidently universal enough to warrant a regular column in such a large newspaper.

Sunday Auto Drive on the Highways of Dallas County, Dallas Morning News newspaper article 17 May 1925

Dallas Morning News (Dallas, Texas), 17 May 1925, page 1

It was also fun to read an article from a 1961 newspaper about Walt Disney’s first color television show. That took me back to our big, old black and white TV, antennas on the roof, adjusting rabbit ears on top of the set, fiddling with the horizontal and vertical knobs, waiting for tubes to warm up, and finally the grand day we got our first color TV. As best I can recall we always had just one TV until the day I came home from college.

Disney Opens Color TV, Omaha World Herald newspaper article 24 September 1961

Omaha World Herald (Omaha, Nebraska), 24 September 1961, page 111

Today, most Blue Laws have been repealed and my Sundays aren’t quite as calm and relaxing as they were in my youth. However, there are still remnants of Blue Laws around us. For instance, in my home state of Indiana you still cannot buy a car on Sunday nor can you purchase alcoholic beverages by the bottle. Sunday drives are a bit shorter now with near $4-a-gallon gas prices, but they still happen. I’m happy to say Sunday Supper still demands full attention in our home—and I always do my best to keep it a family day, especially around Easter.

How about you? Do you remember Blue Laws and do you think they helped make Sundays special and more family oriented? Are there any Blue Laws where you live? I hope you will let me know!