Alex Haley

Author of ‘Roots’. Journalist, writer. Alexander Murray Palmer Haley was born in Ithaca, New York, on August 11, 1921. He grew up in Henning, Tennessee, and graduated from high school at age 15. Haley studied at State Teachers College in Elizabeth City, North Carolina, for two years, and joined the Coast Guard in 1939.

He started out as a mess attendant, Third Class, and in 1952 became the first to hold the title of Coast Guard Journalist. Haley’s friends quickly discovered his writing talent and began requesting his help when writing their own love letters. Haley also used his talents to recount the old tales of sea captains, which turned into his first published story. 

In the 1950s, Haley served as a public relations liaison, turning run-of-the-mill Coast Guard news into exciting, media-friendly narratives. After 20 years of service, Chief Journalist Haley retired from the Coast Guard in 1959 to pursue his career as a journalist full-time. He wrote stories for Playboy and Reader’s Digest, but his career exploded in 1965 with the publication of The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Haley had interviewed the minister of the Nation of Islam for Playboy, and these conversations expanded into the acclaimed autobiography. Malcolm X died shortly before the collaborative effort went to press.

In 1965, Haley resolved to trace the genealogy of his mother’s family. He had grown up listening to his grandmother’s stories about “Kin-tay,” an African ancestor who was enslaved and shipped to America. Haley embarked on a safari to Juffure, a village in Gambia, to learn more. A local historian was able to tell Haley about his great-great-great-great-grandfather, Kunta Kinte, who was brought to America via slave-ship in 1767.

Roots, Haley’s account of his family’s history, was published in 1976, after 12 years of research and creative reconstruction. Roots has been translated into 37 languages and has sold six million copies in hardcover and millions more in paperback. One year after publication, ABC broadcast the miniseries Roots: The Saga of an American Family, which was watched by an estimated 130 million viewers and for which Haley received the Pulitzer Prize and the Spingarn Medal in 1977.

The cultural implications of Roots are widespread; Haley is credited with awakening an interest in genealogy, especially among African-American families. Haley and his brothers created the Kinte Foundation to encourage the preservation of African-American genealogical records. Roots broke the boundaries between truth and myth, individual family and collective culture. Haley’s other works include A Different Kind of Christmas (1988), Queen (1993), and the television series Palmerstown, USA (1980). Haley died on February 10, 1992.