Alexander Murray Palmer Haley was born on August 11, 1921 in Ithaca, New York. He was the youngest child of Simon Alexander and Bertha Palmer Haley. At the time of his birth, his father was a graduate student at Cornell University and his mother was a music teacher.
As a young boy, Alex Haley first learned of his African ancestor, Kunta Kinte, by listening to the family stories of his maternal grandparents while spending his summers in Henning, Tennessee. According to family history, Kunta Kinte landed with other Gambian Africans in “Naplis” (Annapolis, Maryland) where he was sold into slavery.
Alex Haley’s quest to learn more about his family history resulted in his writing the Pulitzer Prize-winning book Roots. The book has been published in 37 languages, and was made into the first week-long television mini-series, viewed by an estimated 130 million people. Roots also generated widespread interest in genealogy.
Haley’s writing career began after he entered the U.S. Coast Guard in 1939. Haley was the first member of the U.S. Coast Guard with a Journalist designation (rating). In 1999 the U.S. Coast Guard honored Haley by naming a Coast Guard Cutter after him. Haley’s personal motto, “Find the Good and Praise It,” appears on the ship’s emblem. He retired from the military after 20 years of service, and then continued writing.
Out of the service, he tried his hand at journalism in the private sector. His first successful article was an interview that appreared in Playboy Magazine in 1962. Haley wrote many well received playboy interviews. He next worked on The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Published in 1965, it became Haley’s first major book.
It was about this time his thoughts then turned back to the family story of the African slave that he heard as a child. His work on the story, which he knew he had to write, became a primary focus of his writing efforts. He details his many years of research in the last chapter of Roots. First referred to as Before This Anger, it was eventually published in abbreviated form in 1974 by the Reader’s Digest. The completed version of Roots was placed on bookshelves in 1976. The award winning book and 1977 television mini-series introduced Kunta Kinte to the world.
Other Haley publications include A Different Kind of Christmas, a 1990 book about the underground railroad, and Queen, the story of Haley’s paternal ancestors. Queen was produced into a television mini-series, which first aired in the winter of 1993.
Perhaps one of Alex Haley’s greatest gifts was in speaking. He was a fascinating teller of tales. In great demand as a lecturer, both nationally and internationally, he was on a lecture tour in Seattle, Washington in February 1992 when he suffered a heart attack and died.
Despite his passing, he has left a legacy of international stature. Kunta Kinte has become a cultural icon world wide. And, Roots initiated such a widespread interest in genealogy research that Haley is considered to be the father of popular genealogy.