Make Black History Personal: #7 Meeting My Hero Alex Haley

When I first started doing genealogy as my New Year’s resolution in 1976, I was soon to be inspired by Alex Haley whose book Roots was published that year. Here was someone who had done what I was trying to do in researching my family history.

I remember saving my grocery money to buy my own hardcover copy. Since doing Black family research was a pretty new phenomena back then, Mr. Haley’s book gave me much-needed motivation to continue researching my own family.

Alex Haley was my hero.

Alex Haley is my genealogy hero.
Alex Haley is my genealogy hero.

During a Black history month celebration at my alma mater, Oakland University in 1985 – twenty-nine years ago today, Alex Haley was the keynote speaker. I went to hear him and ended up being invited to a dinner in his honor later that day at the historic Meadowbrook Hall on campus.

And I confess – I had my worn copy of Roots tucked away in my purse, hoping I could get Mr. Haley’s autograph at some point. I’m not usually an autograph hound, but I wasn’t leaving that night until I got his!

My copy of Alex Haley's book, Roots that I got in 1976.
My copy of Alex Haley’s book, Roots that I got in 1976.

After dinner was over, I made my way into the room where Mr. Haley was surrounded by a crowd of admirers. As long as I got to meet him, I wasn’t in a rush so I stood there patiently until everyone else was gone.

Then I got my chance. Feeling a little shy even (and that’s so not me), I stepped up, introduced myself and stuck out my hand to shake his. Imagine my surprise when he took my hand in both of his, gave me a big smile and said –

Karen – I’m so glad to meet you! I was hoping you’d be here.

As I look back, I was so shocked that my hero knew who I was that I’m surprised I can even remember what happened next. To his genius, I was just a young whippersnapper genealogist. What I didn’t know is that Mr. Haley had read about me integrating the Daughters of the American Revolution in 1977 and had followed my  genealogy journey ever since.*

The more we talked that evening – the more we found to talk about. We stood there for a while but I had to get home to my young son. So Mr. Haley and I agreed to pick up on our conversation a little later by phone.

We ended up talking for three hours about genealogy, writing, the trials and tribulations of our respective family research, his plan to rent a barge to write his next book (he did) and his advice to me about writing down my family history (I am). I still marvel at how our entire conversation had the easy cadence of two colleagues comparing notes, experiences and goals.

My conversation with Alex Haley remains one of the most amazing experiences of my life. Oh – and I did end up getting his autograph. Here it is –

Alex Haley's autograph to me.
Alex Haley’s autograph to me.

How can you make Black history personal this month?

*Watch for more about my DAR experience later this month.

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6 responses to Make Black History Personal: #7 Meeting My Hero Alex Haley

  1. Gwen Blackman says:

    I shared your article with Beverly Johnson, program coordinator for the Alex Haley Museum and Interpretive Center, in Henning, TN. She is a great-granddaughter of Chicken George and a cousin of Alex Haley. I know she will be excited to read this.

    On another note, I’m looking forward to reading about your DAR experience. I worked in the Registrar General’s office, as manager of Record Information, from 1999 until 2006.

    • Karen says:

      Gwen –

      Thanks for sharing my post with Beverly! How nice to know that someone in Mr. Haley’s family will be able to read it. I’m working on my posts on joining DAR as the first Black member. I’d love your feedback when you get a chance to read them.


  2. M. Dawn says:

    Enjoyed reading about your meeting with Alex Haley. He inspired so many to start their quest to know their roots

    • Karen says:

      Mr. Haley was such an inspiration, wasn’t he? Thanks so much for stopping by to read my story about him.


  3. Adam Henig says:

    Great story Karen. I always love hearing new tales about Alex Haley. Your episode is pretty consistent with many others who shared a similar experience. Glad you still have the autographed book. That should be passed down to future generations. – Adam

    • Karen says:

      Adam –

      Thanks for stopping by to read my story about Mr. Haley. My impression was that he was as much a teacher and mentor as he was an historian. And I definitely will pass my copy of Roots on to the next generations of my family – maybe to my little grandson:)


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