Chris Haley Interviewed by Grove Street Magazine
Chris Haley with Sasha Obama and The First Lady, Michelle Obama, August 10, 2010
Interview with Chris Haley
By Andrea Blackstone
Since 2004, Chris Haley has held the position of the Director of the Study of the Legacy of Slavery in Maryland. My cousin was gracious enough to share his unique insight regarding the Maryland State Archives, genealogy and numerous perspectives with us in this issue. He is a descendant of Kunta Kinte. However, he also took a patrilineal DNA test through Ancestry.com that later confirmed the basis of Alex Haley's Queen. Chris has been a keynote speaker at various genealogical conferences and is an extremely skilled historian and multi-talented performer who has gained substantial credibility solely on his own merit.
Tell us about your professional background?
My current professional position is Director of the Study of the Legacy of Slavery in Maryland at the Maryland State Archives. I oversee a department of archivists who research most any advanced or person of African-American descent, or person of European descent who primarily had something to do with The Underground Railroad, or who was hiding in slavery during the Mid-Nineteenth Century. The department began because we received grants from the National Park Service and the Department of Education to help pursue this. That is the crux of the department that I oversee.
Is Maryland's history the focus of the Maryland State Archives?
It really is focused on the state records. We have the original records of the state. The state archives are the repository of permanent records for all government phases of the state of Maryland, which includes the executive, the governor's office, the legislature, the senators, and the house representatives of different counties in Maryland and the municipalities.
What kind of people typically use the archives and for what purpose?
It always has been genealogists—that's what interested me initially; however I would also say it varies a great deal. We have people who need their divorce decrees because they are getting remarried, so they come to look into court records. If someone is trying to open a business and they've had some blip in the past, they need to get a record of that it was taken care of, more than not, the Archives helps people with those issues. In addition, land records are big for the Archives, because we have a program called MD LANDREC. That has allowed the Archives the ability to scan all of the records since the beginning of colonization for all properties in Maryland. A lot of people need that information if they're going to buy or sell a home to confirm they own it, or the boundaries that the land entails. There are a lot of records—although some are historic—that have modern value.
Genealogists come looking for records. Are they doing it on behalf of others, or do most people come to conduct searches in their spare time?
Definitely both. I would say there's a small group of people who I have known in my almost 20 years of being at the Archives, who are professional researchers or professional genealogists. They get requests from people around the country, if not even internationally, who believe that they have or know they have ancestors who lived in Maryland. They hire them to do initial research for them. In addition to that we certainly have your basic family historian who is someone like Uncle Alex to some degree, who was just looking to find out more about their family. They may be doing it because they want to share stuff with other family members, or a family reunion is happening real soon, or they just want to keep it for their children as a keepsake, or they're just curious about their past. We also get people who contact us from different parts of the county after reading a case study, and the Archives had the information. It's gratifying for us to know that people are really looking at our website.
What is the website for people who don't know?
The website is http://slavery.msa.maryland.gov. It is The Legacy Of Slavery In Maryland main web page. From that, there's a lot of places you can go, in addition to overall studies we've touched upon within the 10 years or so that the program has been operating.
Do you all play a hands-on role to those who come in and need help searching for information?
We try to help as much as possible. In my department it's more upper level research. The Reference Department assists patrons who you sign in or register. They can get assistance with general genealogy research, birth records, marriage records or land records. They may ask for special help from my department by calling us to determine if we're available to come and help because of the specifics of what they're trying to do. A patron may be trying to write a book on African-American history during a certain time period, or may be writing a paper for their college thesis. It's helpful, quite frankly, for us to know what other aspects of research that other people have done because there are so many records and bits of information after roughly 400 years. We can't possibly do it all ourselves.
As far as resources, is it kept in bound form or on microfilm?
It really depends on what you're looking for, but of course the initial format has been traditional bound volumes or newspapers. Within that, depending on how far back you're going, then you'll see those classic browned pieces of paper which are almost parchment and brittle—17th, 18th, 19th Centuries. Much has been microfilmed—land records and Wills, for example. We have tried to digitize them as much as we can. We're looking to make the records more modern so people don't have to necessarily be in the building to try and find a land record for somebody, or a Will or marriage record that they hope to access online. We are definitely moving in that direction.
As it relates to family history, what would you say to those who believe there is no way for African-Americans to trace their heritage back the way Uncle Alex did?
I would say it is definitely possible because he did it. It is certainly not something that people should take for granted that going to happen, if they put their mind to it. Many people, I have found it is hard to have that oral history that helped in our family situation.
Speaking to the situation of people who have an interest in genealogy but hear the negative side of research, like success stories such as Roots are made up, what is your opinion?
I guess, in general you should never let someone else make your decisions for you. Ultimately, you make your own decisions. One thing that I always tell my researchers, or people doing genealogy, is sometimes a closed door is a positive for you in genealogy, because that just means you don't have to go through that door anymore. It means that door is closed, there's nothing I can find going in this avenue. I feel secure that I've checked in that way as much as I can, so let me see if there's another way, let me look for another avenue with DNA and innumerable records that are out there. The other thing is that we should start taking to mind what people say—that oral history. Uncle Alex remembered what people said, then when he read about Annapolis, he could recall that one of our aunts had said the African came from Annapolis, and he put that together. Sometimes in genealogy things aren't one plus one equals two. It's one and a half plus .75 probably equals two, and that's the closest you're probably going to get to it, so that's probably right. That's what you have to go by because there's no photography for a black person, and no photography back in the 17th Century for a white person. Just paintings, usually if you were very, very well off. So the further back you go, unless you were a huge historic figure, the more you're making suppositions and putting things together. I feel that's valid for a geological search because that's all there is that you can go by. Now maybe you don't say that it's one-hundred percent sure, but it could be oral history or secondary sources that support or suggest that these possibilities could have happened. It certainly lends itself to that probability. I don't think people should discount that just because it's not written in an actual document. I know personally that those things can be wrong in the modern world.
How long did the DNA test results take?
I found out there were matches within a month or two. Your results will be processed, and then they'll be all of these returns. Within those returns there will be a matter of how close they are. The ones we had that confirmed the Queen story were within six generations, or approximately 150 years. There was also a return that was within one generation but that person chose to remain anonymous. Initially, when you go onto Ancestry.com, you can include your name and contact information. Someone chose not to put down an identity for themselves. It's like a pen pal. At some point the pen pal needs to write you back. You can see people who share your DNA and different levels. You can contact them by email.
Were you shocked there was a match with Cousin June?
I was surprised that it happened. Anybody can have a DNA hit, but to have a hit within one generation, then the fact that the other was within six generations surprised me, and there's contacting and becoming family. The best-case scenario was what happened for us. A black and white person who don't know each other across the seven seas and then they get along well, they're family who call each other and visit. It is like a lifetime story. We're blessed to have that. I'd hate for people to think it's because it's a Haley.
Yeah, it was just a random thing.
There can be good outcomes through genealogical research through DNA. Ultimately, I think you should be satisfied if you have just been able to find a genetic link that takes you back to a certain part of Africa, or a certain part of Europe, a certain part of China, or somewhere else to feel satisfaction that you have at least seen geographically where you traced it back.
What did the DNA test show? (The link explains the story: DNA testing: 'Roots' author Haley rooted in Scotland, too.)
I shared markers that matched up in DNA. Out of 48 markers, we shared 46. That meant that our genetic background was matched on so many different levels. We are related and have a shared ancestry.
What other projects are coming up with the Archives?
We are doing a lot of presentations over the next several months about genealogy, and the focus of the Underground Railroad. The focus for the last two years has been the Eastern Shore of Maryland. Our studies are more about the people that no one ever heard of.
From the perspective of the work that you have done in the genealogy field, do you feel about that Black History Month is still necessary?
The easy answer is it's still necessary, but I think it's also the right answer. Fortunately, over the last year, I've been involved in some of the curriculum meetings that are out there about what's being taught in the schools. I know that there's still a lot of the same history that's taught. Until that changes, I think it is necessary to have African-American Black history month, or Native American month, or Women's History month, because the crux of what's taught in school includes the same figures—the George Washington Carvers and the Susan B. Anthonys. Unless you really go out of your way, you are not going to find how many people of different colors and creeds and nationalities contributed to the history of our nation. The more you incorporate it into the daily knowledge of children, the less people can say that you're just bringing it up to make a political point or to get people upset, or because you're bitter about something. If you start referring to it as the history of the nation, people should have less reason to hate or be upset with everybody else. It's about inclusion of those who don't feel like they're included.
Do you try to keep the relationship with Uncle Alex separate from your personal life?
It has always been my life but I don't throw it out there much. It's not made me rich. It's not made me famous. Whatever I have to do, I still have to do it myself. We are who we are, but when I wake up in the morning it's still me who is having to get through that day. We have to do whatever in our own to specifically add to family legacy ourselves. People being famous because someone else in that family was famous or successful doesn't happen as much as people perceive it to happen. Assumptions are not necessarily true.
Do you foresee yourself writing anything on genealogy?
I'm trying to do a story on my mother—my mother's genealogy. It has a lot of elements in it that are worthwhile to expound up. Diversity—how black and white people lived together, loved together, had a lot of friction. People are people. I hope that empowers our generation to do research ourselves.
What is the latest news about your acting?
One play is coming up May 3rd and May 18th  in Annapolis. After that I'm doing a public reading in DC of a potential pilot.
Tell us about the film festival that you have been a part of.
The Utopia Film Festival in Greenbelt Maryland presents short films from around the world. This year it will be held the last week in October. I'm on hiatus because of an acting course I took in 2012. Cornell is still active. The website is www.utopiafilmfestival.org.
(The above interview of Chris Haley was originally published in the February 2013 issue of Grove Street. © 2013 Grove Street Magazine. All Rights Reserved.)
Alex Haley Roots Foundation Contacts
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