How To Trace Your Heritage To Africa: The Voice of Experience

(How To Trace Your Heritage To Africa: The Voice of Experience was published in Volume 11 of the 13-Volume proceedings of the 1980 World Conference On Records: Preserving Our Heritage, held 12-15 August 1980 in Salt Lake City, Utah.)

The World Conference on Records, held August 12 – 15, 1980 in Salt Lake City, served as a meeting ground for the old and the young, the experienced researcher and the eager beginner, the highly technical and the deeply inspirational. It was a friendly gathering of some 11,500 people from every state in America and fifty nations worldwide. Most of the participants were LDS, but the presence of many nonmembers suggests that interest in family history is by no means exclusive to the Latter-day Saints. Indeed, since Alex Haley’s Roots, it has become fashionable to look backward in a very personal way.

While addressing a general assembly during his Family: A Humanizing Force lecture, on the second day of the conference, Alex Haley referred to the family as a “basic building block of society.” In addition, he suggested that both families and society can be strengthened by collecting oral histories from the elderly and by holding regular family reunions. “Every time a family meets,” he reflected, “there is another tightening of that building block. It is exciting what worldwide family reunions could contribute to worldwide peace.”

When Alex Haley visited the LDS Church’s genealogical Granite Mountain Records Vault near Salt Lake City shortly after Roots was published in 1977, Thomas E. Daniels, executive committee member, said Haley told him he had been unaware of the vast scope of the local facility. “He said that if he had know about it, he could’ve saved himself two years of research on Roots.” Today, the vault safeguards more than 3.5 billion images on microfilm, microfiche and digital media. However, for security reasons, there is no public access to the Granite Mountain Records Vault, except, I guess, if you are Alex Haley.

How To Trace Your Heritage To Africa: The Voice of Experience

Alex Haley with James D. Walker

Alex Haley • Native of Tennessee • Resides in Beverly Hills, California • Professional Writer • 16 Honorary Doctorates • Author • Lecturer

James D. Walker • Born in Washington, D.C. • Resides in Washington, D.C. • Research Consultant • Author • Lecturer

Alex Haley

The title of this talk is supposed to be “How to Trace Your Heritage Back to Africa: The Voice of Experience.” Now, that is a big title in one sense, and anybody who knows anything at all about genealogical things broadly, and particularly about trying to trace a family back to Africa, knows that it is a misleading title at best. There is not any one way to do it.

Before I go on, I want to say that I have taken the liberty of inviting James Walker to be here with me because, very frankly, Jimmy knows more genealogy than I will ever know. He is one of the scholars. I have come to be credited with knowing more than I really do know about genealogical research. I know more than Jimmy maybe about the specific family I worked on, but as to how one would go about searching in general, he is the authority, so I have asked him to be here with me, and he graciously has agreed. We will alternate to see if we can’t give some little bit of insight into this subject.

I guess the basic thing I would say is that in researching African heritage, probably more than with any other ethnic or nationalistic heritage that could be researched, one has to rely extremely heavily upon oral history—what the older people in the family can tell. The reasons are obvious. The records are not nearly so complete or good for those who descend from slaves as they are for others.

I worked on Roots with a lot of cooperation from the few members of the family who were left alive that knew anything about it, with the single exception of my father. And the reason I say that is that Roots deals with my mother’s side of the family, and my father was never overly happy that his side was being shirked. At least, that is how he saw it. Later I hope to do something about his side of the family, and that lets me digress just a little into an interesting aspect of black genealogy. That is that most of us black people, so-called, are made up genetically of some part African, some part European, and, for a great many of us, some part American Indian. That would be the average person; there would be many, many exceptions of course, but on the average that would be the case.

In my own case, though my mother’s side went as Roots, the book and film, described it, on my father’s side, both of his grandfathers were Irish. He was the result of the mating of Irish men and slave women. That was the Irish influence in the family. I decided, just out of curiosity more than any particular Irish ethnic feeling, that I would go and check into that too. I felt kind of funny going to Ireland; I expected a little bit of difficulty, to put it mildly, once they saw me. But what happened was not something I had expected in the slightest. When I got there and began to research, I was being very covert about what I was doing. The people didn’t pay me the slightest bit of attention when I was working in the records and the files in old Dublin Castle, Dublin, and various other places. They began to help me after I got bold enough to tell them, in a kind of vague way, that I was looking into one side of my family. No problem. They were very helpful.

The records finally led me to a little town called Carrickmacross. I rented a car and want down there. I began searching the records there, and everything was going fine until the records ultimately led me to a church, or the possibility of a church. I went to the largest church in town, which was a Catholic church, and I was doing okay there until they finally got some wind that something was amiss. They sent in two priests, who began to question me. They were courteous, but they were firm, and they began to ask me some rather pointed questions. I had the feeling that the door was about to close, but I didn’t know from which direction. They were nice enough until they discovered I was Protestant. That was the problem. They told me I would just have to leave there, that obviously my information wasn’t in their records, and that I had to go over to the Protestant side. It happened that I did find the particular family I was looking for in the Protestant records, and the Protestants couldn’t have been happier. So I was able to trace the Irish side of the family back about as far as I traced Kunta Kinte’s line, into Carrickmacross Ireland. I joined the Irish Research Society, paid my dues every year faithfully, and one of these years I’m going to turn up at a meeting and see what happens. It would be fun. And I may one day write something about my Irish history.

The point I wish to make is that my history is a characteristic, fairly classic account of the genetic background of most of the so-called black people in this country. Black people are not totally African by any means. Just walk up and down the street anywhere that black people are, and simply look at us. You see us in complexions ranging from what we call white to black. What you’re looking at is no more than walking genetics. You’re looking at what has resulted from the fact that biology and genetics are no respectors of social taboos. During slavery and during the Reconstruction, there were many hundreds of thousands of matings, in the biological sense, between white and black, generally the white males and the black women who were the slaves or who lived during Reconstruction. There was not birth control as we know it today, and there were born many hundreds of thousands of children who naturally came of various complexions. Then there would be subsequent matings, which would tend to be the lighter with the lighter.

Among the many, many pieces of mail that come to me now from people as a result of Roots, there are some extremely poignant types of mail. One is from people who are orphans. They write the most poignant of letters saying what a vacuum they feel because they don’t know who their parents are. They write and say, “Is there some way you could help?” Well, of course there isn’t. I have also talked with those who are adopted and with their parents—that’s another area of very poignant situations.

But probably the most poignant of all, to get to this area we’re talking about now, is those people who came out of this genetic background of which I speak, who during the 1920s and ’30s were born of what would be classified black mothers but whose complexions were in effect white. As those people grew up, they caught it hard from both directions racially. When they were in their twenties and thirties, they would do what was known at the time as passing. That meant they would simply leave the communities where they had been born and reared, move to somewhere far distant, frequently into large cities and the eastern part of the United States, and move over into white society, where over a period of years they would marry and have families.

The letters that these people write today are almost pathetic. They tell of how it is to feel that they are of the black race in legal terms while their neighbors and their own families are unaware of this. They hear all the time the things that are said about black people without even their families being aware that they are black. It’s a torment in which they live. Some of the letters make you wonder that the people have been able even to keep their sanity over a long period of time. But these are facets of the story.

The story of Roots, apart from being the specific story of my family, is characteristic of the story of black people all over this country. Every black person has just about the same story. That is one of the reasons, I think, that the book was so well received among black people. Every black person’s ancestry goes back to some African boy or girl, born or raised in some village, usually in western Africa, to some age at which they were kidnapped or somehow taken into slavery. They were put into the hold of some slave ship and brought across the same ocean into some succession of plantations. The ancestry goes on up to the Civil War, the Emancipation, and from that day to today’s struggle for freedom in its various facets. So that, broadly speaking, is what Roots describes.

One of the fascinating sidelights of Roots was that in some way, although it dealt with a black family, or, more broadly, with black people’s stories, somehow, because of its family aspect, it transcended that. The book and the film have been well received by virtually all peoples everywhere. It’s just astonishing to me that the book is new in thirty-three different languages. It has been literally a best-seller in at least twenty-five of those languages. And that is, as I said, not because the writer was so “wow” as it might seem, but simply because that public out there, wherever those places were, elected to give the book and the film that kind of response. And again the reason for the response was the theme of family. The book caused many, many people, of all nationalities, of all kinds of ethnic groupings, to want to get further into the study of their own families.

Now to get specifically to how one would trace a black family. In my experience, and I think I was billed as a voice of experience, I would never have been able to trace my family at all if my family, my mother’s side of the family, had not been extremely story-oriented. They were a people who were always talking, just on their own, about the family, about the things that had happened before them in the family. I grew up hearing about Chicken George and Tom the blacksmith and various others about as much as I heard about David and Goliath and others in Sunday School, until I knew my family’s story thoroughly. And then I happened by luck to become a writer and get curious about the story and go one day to the National Archives. That is where ultimately I met Jimmy Walker and began that long, long search which would lead me, at times, into some extremely emotional situations and some very monotonous situations that are characteristic of genealogical searching; and ultimately it all came together in this book.

I just wish that we could somehow have some interchange, with people asking about things they’re specifically interested in, but I don’t know that we will have either the time or means to do that. As an alternative, I thought that maybe the best way we might go about this would be for me to begin by “running my mouth” a bit, as my grandmother used to say I did all the time, and then ask Jimmy if he would talk for a while, as his knowledge is much more specific about things relating to African ancestors. Then I will come back and tell some other things that I hope might give further illumination. And I still hope that some way, maybe toward the end of this session, we could have at least a few questions from a few people, which would give a little bit more interaction. Jimmy.


James D. Walker

My thanks to the toasted Irishman that preceded me. That’s a term we used, in Washington at least, to identify the people who call themselves black Irishmen.

The problem with researching a black family history is not nearly as great a problem as most people assume. First, the procedure for tracing genealogy is exactly the same for everyone, regardless of race, creed, color, or national origin. Second, because of the history of the blacks in the United States, tracing a black genealogy is merely a matter of researching your family back to the period of enslavement, which differs for different families. In other words, some people were manumitted during the Civil War, many others were manumitted long before the war, and there were, contrary to general opinion, a great number of families who came to the United States as immigrants and free persons and were never slaves.

As Alex has indicated, a great number of us have a mixture of different nationalities. And this in itself presents a few problems, for several reasons. During the period of enslavement, there was no record made of the paternity of a slave—only of the maternity. The mother was duly noted in the records of the plantation owner, in the records of the county courthouse, and in deeds and in many wills. Because there is no reference to the father of the slave, we are sometimes extremely handicapped.

Even if we find out who the father of a given child is, the other problem that we encounter when we’re tracing a black family during the period of slavery, is trying to determine where, when, and how the slave was acquired. He could have been acquired in many ways. Most frequently, the purchase, sale, and transfer of slaves were duly documented in the county deed books. Why? Because their value exceeded that of real property, and the place to record such information was in the county deed book.

Many wills provide an interesting bit of information. The wills usually identify the wishes of the deceased and the parceling out of his estate, which sometimes involved the transfer of a particular slave, usually with one or more of his children, to a given family member. Thus, wills can provide family linkages. They may be the only records that do.

As Alex has also indicated, a great number of the parents of mulatto children were the slave owners. What Alex didn’t mention is that the slave owner need it have been a male. Many times it was a female. Carter G. Woodson in the 1930s did a study in which he indicated that 42 percent of the female slave owners in North Carolina were themselves the mother of one or more children by a slave on their plantation.

This all leads to confusion. But you will find that as you trace your history, there exists a great deal of documentation to assist you in identifying your ancestors.

During the period of slavery, the slave was perhaps far better off than the poor tenant farmer. The reason is that everything that happened to that slave is documented. In some states the name of the slave was entered on the personal property tax records. Special censuses were taken of the slave population, and, as I already indicated, the transfer of a slave was duly recorded in legal documents. This is not true of the tenant farmer—no such records were kept; the farmers existed as a convenience to the property owner, who didn’t care whether they came or left, lived or died.

I will mention one other incident that I think is important. A Washington resident, a good friend of mine, a former student, had sought for eleven years the location of a family Bible which she knew existed. She is a white woman. She hunted and she hunted. She checked with every family member that she could. She finally got a clue as to its location—it was to be found in the manuscripts collection of the University of Virginia at Charlottesville, a four-hour drive from Washington through the mountains; nevertheless, she made the trek. She got to the manuscripts Division and after all of the usual security procedures was permitted to look at the family Bible. She got it out, turned to the section between the Old Testament and the New Testament, and glanced at the family pages. And there on the pages under births, deaths, and marriages were duly recorded the births, the deaths, the marriages of all of her great-grandfather’s slaves—and not a mention of any family member.


Alex Haley

Jimmy and I should get an act. We’re doing pretty good. I was just thinking of one other anecdote about the places where records of slaves were kept that would not appear at first to be sources. Incidentally, one of the main places would be right here in Salt Lake City. I’ve said several times to the press and others that if had known at the time I was researching Roots about the existence of the records here, I could have saved at least two years of that research time that I spent searching in little county courthouses, in England, and in other places. I could have gotten it all right here. But I didn’t, and I guess, in another sense, it is just as well because I think that one of the great factors in the success of the book was that it came out when it did; the timing seemed to be, for whatever reason, absolutely perfect, and I certainly can’t quarrel with that.

But another source that really startled me, one of the better sources for records of slaves once one can identify what slave he is looking for, is in the library of the Daughters of the American Revolution. It seems that on large, well-kept plantations during the time of slavery, the function of a proper mistress of the plantation, that is to say, the wife of the owner, was to take an inventory of the plantation once each year. In the Daughters of the American Revolution Library, they have the records pretty much compartmentalized by state, and then by plantation within the state. There are folders—some of them very thick, or accordion, folders—of the papers from that plantation in that period of time. And you will find again and again the most methodic, careful inventories, taken annually on the plantation by its mistress, written in this careful, copperplate, Spencerian handwriting listing everything—each teaspoon, each horse, each slave. In a time when slaves were not listed in the census by name, the mistress would have listed every slave at least by number. She may have listed field slaves abstractly, such as x number of males and x number of females, and perhaps their ages. But when she came to those who worked in the household area, whom she knew personally, she would write their names and, in some cases, little descriptions of them, of their personalities. These could be almost like little gold discoveries for a person seeking information about that particular person.

I was recently in Natchez, Mississippi, where antebellum homes are preserved as I have never seen them in number. Some doctor and his wife had found the records and the negatives of an old photographer who had lived there for about fifty years. He had apparently gone all over the place taking pictures of black and white people alike and had carefully labeled his pictures. The negatives had been stuffed up into an old loft, and there they had been for almost thirty years. Nobody paid them any attention. Somehow this doctor heard about them. He is a photography buff. He and his wife have now made it almost their life’s work to print these negatives and publish some of them in books. Some are beautiful pictures of black families intact, sitting almost wriggly in their Sunday best, whatever it was—this in a period not long after slavery. I all but wept looking at some of these photographs of black families, as well as white families—photographs going back to that period of time. I know that there are people around this country who would give virtually anything to know that their family was so beautifully recorded. And that’s the thrill of genealogy again.

For what time we have left, we are going to try something. I’m sure that some of you have things you would like to know, and neither Jimmy nor I, with our varying areas of expertise, would pluck out of our heads things that would meet your particular interest. But between the two of us we would like to try to answer your questions. So if you have some query, come up this way. There is a microphone for you to ask your question. We will try to deal with as many as we can in the time remaining. I think that that is probably the best way to use the time we have, which I wish could be a whole afternoon.

First Participant:

I’m here from New York, and I’m representing a lot of interests. Some of my friends come from Trinidad in the West Indies. I noticed that there are no classes at the conference on how to trace your ancestry in the West Indies or in the Caribbean. Do you go about it the same way you would your black history in the United States?

Mr. Haley:

I’m glad you asked that. It just happens to be one of the things I do know something about that I stumbled upon in research. It utterly fascinated me. Are you talking about Caribbean black people?

First Participant:


Mr. Haley:

In the researching of Roots, one of the questions for me became, What ship brought Kunta Kinte to this country? I had some clues. The family story had always said he came to some place called “ ’Naplis.” I heard “ ’Naplis” before I was old enough to know anything. Now, this was obviously Annapolis, Maryland. In Africa, some forty years later, I heard this old griot say that Kunta Kinte had disappeared “at about the time the king’s soldiers came.” Now my search became to find out who the king’s soldiers were.

I went to London and searched and searched in British parliamentary records and finally found a group called Colonel O’Hare’s Forces. They had been sent from London to that place on the Gambia River and were obviously the king’s soldiers to whom the griot referred.

Now I had a time area, and things were starting to fill in. I knew Kunta was brought on a ship—there was no other way he could have been brought. My question then became, What ship had sailed out of the Gambia River and had had as its destination Annapolis? Had the ship’s destination been Charleston, I would have been in bad trouble because so many slave ships came into Charleston. Annapolis was not a frequent slave port—that was one of my big assets. I searched and searched and searched in the Public Record Office in London, until one afternoon—I will never forget it—I looked down and saw, among about thirty-five ships listed, the Lord Ligonier, Captain Thomas Davies. She had left on 5 July 1767, destination Annapolis. Well, I nearly had a fit. I got on a plane, flew back to this country, made it to Annapolis, and began to search the records at the Maryland Hall of Records. I knew about how long it took sailing ships to cross the ocean, and I found that after two months, three weeks, and a few days, on 29 September, the Lord Ligonier, with Captain Thomas Davies, had arrived from the Gambia River. She had left with 140 slaves as her cargo; she arrived with 98 alive, and I knew Kunta Kinte was one of them.

Anyway, in the slave-ship records you would see thirty-five or forty ships on one listing, and the dates of their departures were there. These ships had stayed anywhere from six months to ten months getting their cargo before they sailed out, the competition for cargo was such. They would leave from any place. The Gambia River area was what I was studying, but they would leave from anywhere down the coast of western Africa. The destination of ship A would be Baltimore; ship B, Barbados; ship C, Charleston; another one, Martinique or Jamaica; and so forth. These ships had all loaded from the same places in Africa, and the question of what happened to the cargo depended simply on the destination of the ship—was it the United States, or was it the Caribbean?

Now let me tell you what all that background means and try to get at what you’re asking. Generally, the slave ships lost about one-fourth of their cargo by death. The fascinating thing was that when the ships got to the United States, there were always auctions, as the book Roots describes. The agent for the ship would run an ad in the paper (in the case of the Lord Ligonier, it was in the Maryland Gazette), and it would say how many Africans they had brought in and what time the auction would be held. To that auction would come a great many plantation owners from different places who would inspect the slaves as they would put them on the block, and they would buy them one by one. Rarely would they buy more than one at a time. Thus, most of the Africans brought to the United States were taken, one by one, from an auction to a plantation where everything they met was alien to Africa, where everything about Africa was ridiculed. Even the other blacks knew nothing about Africa. The African was reduced to keeping whatever he could retain about Africa within himself, as was the case with Kunta Kinte. He had no support from anybody. Everything African was out. Either it was illegal, or the African could be beaten or laughed at by the other slaves for trying to retain his African culture.

That happened with those brought to this country. Here the agriculture was indigo, rice, some cotton, and tobacco. The average plantation at that time had five to eight slaves, not three hundred or four hundred like the Gone with the Wind image. There were a few that big, but very few. A plantation in need of slaves only added one more slave, rather than a lot more slaves. That’s why the slaves went one at a time to these alien plantations. That was the background of the ancestors of almost all of us blacks in this country who go back to such a person as Kunta Kinte or a female equivalent.

But in the Caribbean there was a difference. The Caribbean black people like to feel that they have some inherent sense of blackness greater than ours. It ain’t so. I love them dearly, but their heritage was determined purely by which way the slave ship went. Back at the slave-ship harbor, two ships could leave within a week of each other with Africans from exactly the same radius, the same tribal groups, maybe the same villages, possibly the same families, but one ship would have as its destination Barbados or Jamaica and the other, the United States.

When the ship got to its destination in the Caribbean, there was not an auction where the slaves were sold off one by one and taken to places alone, with nobody to support them. In the Caribbean, almost without exception, the agriculture was sugar cane. And instead of small plantations, there were vast tracts of land—thousands of acres of sugar cane—on which there might be a thousand slaves or, on a smaller plantation, five hundred. And there, when the slave ships arrived, the agents for the ships would make deals with the owners of plantations, who bought, if not the whole living cargo, half the cargo. And so you had at least half the living cargo of Africans going together and staying together on one plantation in the Caribbean. So the Africans there supported each other, whereas the black brought here was one against the many wherever he was taken. And that had a great deal to do with the character, the perception, and the psyche of the black who was a slave here and of the black who was a slave in the Caribbean, and of the descendants of both. Now Jimmy can probably add something much more learned to this.

Mr. Walker:

Thank you, Alex. There is, as I’ve indicated before, the research problem. Technique is exactly the same. They have to trace their family back to the original immigrant, if possible. If the families arrived in the United States after the Civil War, then their arrival is duly documented on immigration passenger lists. However, the history of the slave trade is such that many of the blacks were brought from Africa to the Caribbean and then to the New England states and then south into the southern part of the United States. However, beginning in the late 1840s or early 1850s, the Southerners began to reject West Indies slaves. They considered them lazy and trifling. They wanted direct importations from Africa.

One of the problems with tracing families from the West Indies is that many of them came from Africa to the West Indies to the United States and then back to the West Indies, whereas many others came directly to the West Indies and never left until they immigrated to this country.

For the British West Indies and the Caribbean, the records of the British Public Record Office, in the countries that were British, and the records of the Catholic church, in countries of French or Spanish domination, are excellent. Once the family is located there, it’s just absolutely fantastic what you can find. And I too regret that there was no one here to talk about that subject, but maybe at the next conference there will be somebody here.

First Participant:

Thank you both for your time.

Mr. Haley:

Is there somebody else?

Second Participant:

You gave a lecture in Dayton, Ohio, several years ago—in fact, before Roots came out—at which time I asked you if you had heard anything about the rumor that you were going to start a black library in Washington, D.C. At that point, you said you had heard about the rumor but that it was only a rumor so far. I was wondering if there has been any progress made. Thank you.

Mr. Haley:

Not really. I’ll tell you what began to happen. Among the discoveries I’ve made since Roots came out is that it’s one thing to have lovely aspirations to do things like that, and then it’s another thing entirely to make them happen. I have talked about it. In fact, I talked with Jimmy Walker about it at some length early on. But several things began to happen. The minute it got publicized that I was going to do something like that, I got flooded with mail, with requests, with one thing or another. I was trying to deal with the life of being a writer, doing that and the other, and I simply couldn’t cope with it physically.

I have tried not only that but several other things in the interim. Now what it has come down to and what I think is going to happen is this: I have a small foundation, and I am going to see if I cannot set up within that foundation something to encourage black family reunions. The reason I am limiting it to blacks is again simply because of the demand. I don’t know if we really can cope with just black family reunions, and if we open it up, if we try to deal with all family reunions, that’s the last you’ll ever see or hear of me. But this is something that I hope I can do particularly well just because of my image. I could get it going, and then I want to work with people like the good brothers of the Mormon church, who have the means, ideas, and experience, and see if we cannot create an agency that could aid people of every kind, color, and nationality who are interested in family reunions. That’s what I now really want to go into. But I’m going to leave the library to librarians.

Third Participant:

Mr. Haley, I’ve had a question for about two years, ever since I saw Roots. My mother’s family are Harveys, and, in the film, after the young man came home from Europe, he returned to Georgia and sought out the family at the Harvey plantation. We’re wondering if you could give us the name of that Harvey family.

Mr. Haley:

The Harvey family in Roots? Who played that role? I’m just trying to remember.

Third Participant:

Did they interject anything in the television production that wasn’t in the book?

Mr. Haley:

No, everything in that was pretty much true. In the whole of Roots, in the book and the film, of the major characters, the only wholly fictitious character—one I totally created and loved dearly—was the one called Fiddler, which Lou Gossett played. I created him because music was such a part of slavery, and there was nobody in my family who was identified with music. Also, Kunta needed some older, wiser slave to be his teacher, his mentor. So I created Fiddler out of a composite of many, many things I’ve read about older slaves. Lou played that role like nobody ever dreamed of playing it.

One of the most moving things that ever happened in the filming of Roots occurred when we filmed a scene with Fiddler and Kunta in Savannah, Georgia. The reason we went down there was because the countryside of Savannah looks very much like the savannah lands of Africa. We came to that time when Kunta was being beaten to say that his name was Toby. That episode was absolute fact; I heard it from the time I was little. They named him Toby, but he never wanted to say that that was his name.

I had said at a conference one day, “I don’t care what we do; I don’t want any scene in the picture to be any stronger than that.” It seemed to be symbolic, his fighting to retain his real name. Then we wrote the scene, and the day came that we were to film it. Now and then in the motion picture business there will come moments when the script, actors, and circumstances all come together and something happens that you could not humanly have written or even have planned. The script called for Lou Gossett, playing Fiddler, to be sitting there as Vic Morrow, the actor who played the overseer, was ordering Kunta’s beating. LeVar Burton was playing Kunta.

Vic ordered, “Beat him again.” It looked as if LeVar were suspended above the ground. (He wasn’t really, but you couldn’t see the little projection that he had his toes resting on.) They would beat him with a big manila rope that had been frayed. When they hit him, it looked horrible on film, but it was not that bad at all. Every time they would hit him, he would arch his body, and you got that dramatic effect. Finally, he gasped “Toby, my name is Toby.” And then Vic said, “You hear what he said—Toby. Cut him down.”

Then the script called for Lou to catch him and hold him. Lou was supposed to say something like, “Boy, you know your name ain’t Toby.” Lou had been trying to make him say “Toby” too. Then we were going to fade out. But Lou told me later, “I forgot completely that I was an actor. I was back two hundred years.” He said, “I became Fiddler.” And he said that when that boy fell down from that tree, he started crying. At that moment, all cameras were going, and it was quiet—you somehow know when something is going to happen. Lou began to talk, and it was almost like stream of consciousness. The sound people very brilliantly detected something and moved the sound boom over so that we could pick up Lou’s voice. Lou just totally ad-libbed what he said on that screen. He said something like, “Boy, you knows what your name is. What it matter what they think your name is?” And then he began to weep on camera, and he said, “There’s goin’ to be a better day.” He paused, and then he said again, “There’s goin’ to be a better day.” And by the time he said that, everybody on that set was weeping—the cameramen, everybody. And finally the director just said, “Cut, recess.” No more that day. It was beautiful.

I forgot what you asked me.

Third Participant:

I wanted to know if you could give us the first name of the Harvey family.

Mr. Haley:

Lea was the name of the family. That was the real name. Harvey was a fictitious name we used because you need to use fictitious names when you’re making a television show. The names in the book are the correct names. The names on television were fictional.

Third Participant:

Thank you.

Mr. Haley:

You’re not a Lea by chance, are you? If you are, I’m going to say, “Hey, cousin.”

Fourth Participant:

Mr. Haley, I’m from Brigham City, Utah. I represent a day-care center in Brigham City, and they wanted me to tell you that they all love you and wish they could have been here to shake your hand. I wanted to tell you how much I love you. I just think it’s great that you’re here.

Mr. Haley:

Fantastic. Bless your heart.

Fifth Participant:

Would it be all right if I said, “Hi, cousin”? My maiden name is Haley, and I have a book I believe you would be interested in. I was wondering how I would go about tracing my black ancestry.

Mr. Haley:

Let me tell you something. After Roots I, some of you may have seen a little one-hour feature called “Roots: A Year Later,” I think, where I went back to Alamance County, North Carolina, where my great-grandparents had been slaves. We went to a little crossroads church near Burlington, North Carolina. A white family named Murray had invited me to come and speak there. Then they began to invite some black Murrays who were in the area. It was an almost eerie thing. There was a little bit of taut feeling—I wouldn’t say tension—because they had never done this before. Nobody had ever thought of doing this before. Yet there were these people who had been living for generations within the county, all of whom knew that there were black and white Murrays of the same stock. They simply were separated by the fact that they were black and white.

We had this reunion on television, and I don’t know how it really happened except that there I was speaking, and there was this little church half-full of black Murrays and half-full of white Murrays. We all knew the story of the family pretty thoroughly, and we were genetically, I suppose, everything to sixteenth cousins. But the point is that nobody bit anybody, and everybody seemed to get along pretty good, and now it has become an annual thing. It is very matter-of-fact. It’s down in the heart of the South, and the blacks and the whites have their reunion and no big deal. I have heard of numerous other cases where this is being done, particularly in the South. And I think that it will be an absolutely marvelous thing when that spreads. It is simply dealing with the facts as they are. So when you say what you say to me, I say to you, “Fine, cousin.”

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