(My Search For Roots by Alex Haley was published in The Milwaukee Sentinel on October 12, 1965)
A writer goes back to Africa . . . and across our nation a people looks to heritage, ancestors and beginnings. It’s a search that requires every possible clue.
Roots, the epic tale of Alex Haley’s search for his African ancestry, was one of the most long-awaited books in the history of Afro-American literature. The book, which took Haley more than a dozen years to research and write, was excerpted and serialized in numerous periodicals before its actual release.
For years, Haley has crisscrossed the country, titillating audiences with the story of his return to the source of his African family, among the Mandingo people of the Gambia, West Africa.
“I’ve spent long hours in genealogical libraries, and in Washington’s U.S. Archives—squinting at miles of microfilm, poring through early township and country histories,” says Alex Haley. “Every time I found an additional piece of information, I felt like springing up and shouting across the quiet libraries. And by now, deep into the book’s writing, I know that to make it full-circle I will go to Africa’s one-time slave coast—and return here, symbolically, by ship. Then I’m going to drive a car to where I can walk on the Alabama and North Carolina grounds where the elders have told me the plantations were.”
Alex Haley is a free-lance contributor to many national magazines, such as Playboy and Reader’s Digest. His book on his family history, an elaboration of this article, originally was to be titled “Before This Anger” and was published in 1976. Haley is also the author of the current biography of Malcolm X.
My Search For Roots
In the beginning there was, of course, the African who had been brought to this country in 1766 on a slave ship. The stories I heard during my young life all began with him. He wasn’t really unique. He hated enslavement, he kept trying to run away, he always got caught, was brought back and beaten. But he never stopped trying to escape.
This was the beginning of the Family history I heard time after time from my grandparents when I was growing up in Henning, Tenn. (pop. 500). And the African was implanted in my mind like some primeval memory.
From there, the handed-down narrative went on to the African’s daughter, who in time had a son, who before he was sold away was told about his grandfather. The son’s new owner, a North Carolina plantation master named Lee, apprenticed him into the training of fighting cocks. He became so expert at producing feathered champions that he won regional renown as the master Lee’s “Chicken George.”
“Chicken George” was an extroverted, productive man. Before the Civil War, the wife he most often favored had borne him seven children. After the war ended, one of his sons—my great grandfather, a blacksmith named Tom Murray—led 31 covered wagons, “Rockaways,” driven by ex-slaves over the Cumberland Trail into the tiny West Tennessee settlement of Henning. They helped develop this town where my mother—the sixth American generation—was born. She met and married my father—a “Haley” (whose own lineage I’ll go into shortly. There, in Hennings, our seventh American generation was born: first me, then George (a State Senator-elect in Kansas), then Julius (an architect in Washington, D.C.).
It was last January that our family—Haleys, Murrays. Poseys, Andersons and others—held a reunion in Kansas City when George was to be sworn-in as Kansas State Senator. There, during the drive to the state capitol at Topeka and in the visitors gallery while watching my brother with his right hand raised … the gaps in the stories, the missing facts, the questions that weren’t answered because nobody knew or remembered the answers, were more insistently apparent than ever before.
There now has been nearly a year of research on the book I have begun to write about the rooting of my family in America. I’ve travelled thousands of miles to see and question our family’s oldest members, some of whom I hadn’t seen since childhood. “Yeah, you growed up into a right fair-sized man.” “Um-huh, I and she were the same year’s chillun.” … “ ’Course I recollect. I’ll tell you about back then—you’ll know how to frame it out.”
Their narratives often were emotional experiences. Sometimes I had to take notes through tears. Sometimes, hearing for instance about the beatings of ancestors, I felt like trying to run back through history brandishing a club.
I’ve spent long hours in genealogical libraries, and in Washington’s U.S. Archives—squinting at miles of microfilm, poring through early township and country histories. Every time I found an additional piece of information, I felt like springing up and shouting across the quiet libraries. And by now, deep into the book’s writing, I know that to make it full-circle I will go to Africa’s one-time slave coast—and return here, symbolically, by ship. Then I’m going to drive a car to where I can walk on the Alabama and North Carolina grounds where the elders have told me the plantations were.
During the research, I learned something that gave me deep pleasure. Right away, in the various genealogical libraries, I observed other Negroes searching just as I was in the old tomes and the new microfilm. After awhile, I began questioning the libraries’ staff members: Were they noting an increase in Negroes seeking out their slave forebears?
The answer was always yes. “Certainly, yes a very pronounced buildup of those interested in their heritage,” said Frank E. Bridgers, a U.S. Archives specialist in genealogical history.
“… a very conspicuous increase,” said acting curator Wendell Wray at Harlem’s famed Schomburg Collection of Negro historic materials. “So many come in and say just something such as, ‘I want to find my roots, I want to know who I am.’ ”
“Yes many more Negroes in, I say, the past two years,” said librarian Timothy Beard in the Genealogical Room of New York City’s main public library.
It was Beard who also pointed out that Negroes are only the most recent ethnic group to join in the growing use of the nation’s genealogical libraries. “All ethnic groups are using our materials more than ever before. Take the Italian people, descendants of early 1900s immigrants, now they are conspicuously here, seeking their roots. Before them it was the Irish. It’s a regular pattern that we see; the Negroes really are just starting.”
European-heritage Americans, who will invest the research time and pains, generally can document up to ten generations to reach their immigrant ancestor. (A generation is considered to be 33-1/3 years.) Hundreds of thousands of European ancestry now possess family histories; over 20,000 have had such histories published. A small percentage of these reach deep into the European “old country”—and the genealogical “elite,” those able to document back to “noble” lineage, may date to before the first English law, in 1538, requiring the keeping of parish records.
No matter—William the Conqueror’s documented lineal descendants possess precisely no more sociologically meaningful or subjectively exciting ancestry than any descendant of the 15 million black Africans who reached America.
But where almost every Negro seeking his ancestry is going to meet much frustration is in the extreme sparseness of recognizable records on individual slaves. White family searchers have an advantage of being able to search fruitfully in archival documents, whereas slaves are but statistics if mentioned at all. Even in the records of slave sales, “prime buck” or “good breeder” could only rarely be a useful clue to one’s great-great grandfather or grandmother. (The only reason that I can begin with sketch-account of our family’s African ancestor is because, somehow, starting with that first African’s daughter, who knew him before she was sold away in her teens, it became a tradition for each generation to instill the cumulative oral story among the various children.)
So the search requires, from the family’s oldest living members, every possible clue. Before going to the genealogical libraries to study U.S. Census records, “slave schedules” and similar archival data, the searcher needs to know who “owned” his forebears and when; the successive plantations they lived on; if and when his forebears were sold to some new “owner” and who that owner was and where and so on.
The U.S. Census, a key source for any ancestors searcher, was begun in 1790. But for the next 80 years, each slave was indicated, often in long, long columns, only by an “x” plus the age, the sex, and a “b” for “black” or an “m” for “mulatto.” The 1870 Census began the listing of each now-former slave by his or her given name, plus a naming of the state of birth—which often can provide the Negro researcher with a good trail or a new clue.
There are on record many plantation owners’ wills and deeds in the U.S. Archives, the Library of Congress, the D.A.R. Library and in the former Confederate States’ genealogical collections. The wills, especially, can prove richly productive, for not only do they list slaves by specific names, but often there is also a piece of precious comment on these slaves’ skills or personal characteristics.
So few slaves or early freed slaves could read or write that among the most valuable research finds are old family bibles, old letters or any kind of scribblings whatever. I’ve ransacked treasured keepsake collections, rifled old photo albums. It was Like Captain Kidd’s treasure when a dusty old box in an attic produced six 1870s-1880s blacksmith ledgers that had been kept by the newly freed slave, Tom Murray, my great-grandfather, who had led the 31 covered wagons over the Cumberland Trail.
Since the Negro researcher’s strongest starting point is the oral history from his living elders, no time should be wasted in starting to conduct these interviews. After the lineal grandparents should come their siblings, then any of their close friends with whom they may have done a lot of reminiscing. The death of any of these sources buries forever their store of vital information.
I have found that the best stimulus for elders’ memories is a bit of praise on the keenness of their memory. Happily, I’ve discovered that elders often do possess uncanny recollections of their childhood. And I’ve found that when some specific detail, like someone’s name, couldn’t immediately be recalled, if I kept my next questions hovering in that area, the hoped-for reply would pop out. My Cousin Georgia: “Wait, wait, now—Mattie! That was her name! Lil’ ol’ sweet-natured shoutin’ thing, yes, that she was! Ol’ preacher get to goin’, she’d shout all over God’s Heaven!”
There’s a high frequency in the U.S. Census records of the “m” for “mulatto” designation for slaves. Most Negro ancestral researchers can expect to encounter at least one white male ancestor. Almost always, the elders’ oral histories include exactly who was this white parent—the master of the plantation, his sons, an overseer or whoever. As a rule, in the slaves’ sub-culture, white parentage was a great source of pride. Today, numerous Negro families are known be directly blood-tied to such revered Americans as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Robert E. Lee. Scores of distinguished mixed-blood findings have been published by the foremost Negro genealogist, the historian J. A. Rogers. “Aren’t you concerned about libel possibilities?” I asked Rogers, some years ago, and he smiled. “Nobody’s going to court to have me exhibit the records.”
Indeed, the family names of most Negroes today were adopted from their stave ancestors’ masters. To illustrate with my own family, both my father’s grandfathers were white. My father’s mother well knew that her father was an Alabama plantation owner, later a Civil War colonel—James Jackson. And my father’s father well knew that his father, also on an Alabama plantation, was an overseer, a frequent rapist of slavewomen—Jim Baugh. Why we descendants don’t carry the “Baugh” today is because all of the plantation’s slaves—and offspring, whoever their sire—were “owned” by the plantation master, Haley, whose surname they were given.
Similarly—not at all uncommon among Negroes, either—my mother’s grandsire ancestry included a full-blooded Cherokee Indian, himself a slave. The stories passed down about him especially reflect how he fiercely loved his children by his black mate (whose name was Hanna) The Indian, I otherwise can’t document in the archival sources; as another slave, he is indicated only as another “x” But I’m pressing my search now into the backgrounds of Colonel Jackson and overseer Baugh, those bloodfusion great-grandfathers in the lineage of us African-Celtic-American-Indian so-called Haleys.
The deeper I’ve dug the more the ancestral search has heightened for me. Finding a new lead, a new clue, I’ve gone again charging back to Kansas City to Cousin Georgia: “Young’n don’t come in here talking about you bothering me! Ask me everything!”
By now, no longer is my book’s subject an abstract “them.” Now, I’m chronicling us in the slavery, during the Civil War, and us “emancipated” and not yet quite sure what emancipation meant, and so on. Sometimes they, the others, would kibitz what I had already written—such as, “No—look, that incident you don’t have quite right; it was this way….”
Professional genealogists can be hired, but this is costly; they charge by the hour, being unable to estimate how long their search may require—it can take weeks and months. I recommend do-it-yourself. Most of the professional genealogists are self-trained, anyway. Genealogy is as yet taught at only a few colleges. My main do-it-yourself reason, though, is not to hire out to anyone the sheer elation of the search and the find.
I ought to add one heartwarming thing that serious genealogical researchers may anticipate: the helpfulness of the genealogical libraries’ staffs. At the Schomburg Collection, Wendell Wray observed, “We’ve helped many with our extensive church records. Our military records, our specialized histories such as The Negroes of South Carolina, our 40 and 50 years of Negro periodicals, all are often extremely productive sources. And if a Negro ancestor ever was an active Masonic Lodge member, our Harry A. Williamson collection of Negro Masonry is one of the most extensive in the country.”
The U.S. Archives, if supplied with enough specific names, dates, places, will conduct a reasonable search among its literally millions of records, and for a nominal fee photocopies of any documentation found may be provided. (Understandably, however, the Archives won’t search out your family tree.) Recently, the Archives published A Guide to Documents in the National Archives: For Negro Studies. The guide spans the history of the Negro in the U.S., in Latin America and in the West Indies; anyone wishing to obtain a copy should send 50c to the U.S. Archives, Washington, D.C.
On a Ford Foundation grant, Dr. Morris Rieger is working at the Archives compiling a guide to all of the nation’s archival and manuscript materials relating to African heritage.
Other substantial private efforts are being made to preserve and compile historical Negro records, and to transfuse into the American cultural mainstream a much wider knowledge of the Negroes’ contributions. Nearly half a hundred professional authors and scholars plan to petition the New York City Public Library to enlarge the Schomburg Collection’s staff, modernize its facilities and to quickly microfilm the Collections irreplaceable original materials, many of which already are deteriorating from their heavy research usage.
Now, in Pittsburgh, there is probably America’s first genealogical society of Negroes. Mrs. Florence Ball-Jones, Secretary, has told me that they focus on early Pittsburgh settlers, that some special work is done on the Negro in the Civil War and they strive to generate a wider use of Negro literature in the public schools.
All around the U.S., Negro history groups are seeing a steady rise in membership. Publishers are selling more books by and about Negroes—and Negroes are buying far more books today than they ever have before. By many indices, Negroes are manifesting unprecedented hunger for more knowledge of themselves.
The why of this I discussed recently with the Reverend Wyatt Tee Walker, Vice-President of The Negro Heritage Library in Yonkers, N.Y., publishers of books dealing with the Negro contributions to civilization. “The Negro in America had his historical umbilical cord severed by the slave experience,” said Walker. “Western historians have excluded the black man’s record in America and world civilization, so there has been a cultural blackout for both races.” Walker said that it was significant that immediately after the Los Angeles riot, all publishers’ sales of Negro-subject books rose sharply.
Obviously, from the awakened interest all over the country, I’m not alone in my feeling for heritage. I even have Thurgood Marshall, the new Solicitor General of the United States, for company. He was speaking to an interviewer last month about his own great grandfather: “His more polite descendants like to think he came from the cultured tribes in Sierra Leone, but we know that he really came from the toughest part of the Congo.” It’s not ancestor worship: it’s ancestor pride. ~ Alex Haley.
(My Search For Roots by Alex Haley is presented to our audience under the Creative Commons License. It was originally published on October 12, 1965 in The Milwaukee Sentinel. © 1965 Journal Sentinel Inc. All Rights Reserved.)