By Leslie LaChance
Kunta Kinte. Kizzy. Chicken George. In the mid-1970s, these characters became household names thanks to author Alex Haley. His 1976 novel Roots: The Saga of An American Family, and the television miniseries Roots, which aired a year later, changed what many Americans thought they knew about African-American heritage, taking the story of slavery and the quest for freedom out of dry-as-dust history textbooks and making it come alive in our living rooms.
Haley often said his novel had its own roots in oral history, inspired by the stories he heard as a child from his grandmother and aunts on the front porch of the family home in Henning, Tenn. This 1919 Craftsman-style bungalow in West Tennessee has been transformed into the Alex Haley Museum, where visitors can sit on that same broad front porch, sharing their own stories. Inside, they’ll find period furnishings from the 1920s along with Haley family artifacts and photographs, including one of the legendary Chicken George, the former slave and patriarch who brought the Murrays, Haley’s maternal ancestors, out of North Carolina to settle in Henning in the late 1800s. A tour through the house is also a journey through the family’s history.
Chicken George’s granddaughter, Cynthia Murray Palmer, was Haley’s grandmother, and she and her husband, Will Palmer, built the Henning home. It was one of the finest houses in town and the first African-American home in Henning to have a telephone. Will Palmer owned a successful lumber company, and the spaciousness of the house and quality of the construction indeed show that the Palmers were people of means.
The son of the Palmers’ daughter Bertha and college agriculture professor Simon Haley, Alex Haley spent his younger years moving around the country with his parents as his father pursued an academic career, but he thought of his maternal grandparents’ house in Henning as home. It was there he first heard about an ancestor his elders called “the African,” who was kidnapped by slave traders in West Africa, survived the brutal Middle Passage (only one in six Africans typically did), and was enslaved in colonial America. This tale and others would fire the author’s literary imagination. Haley, who died in 1992, is buried in the front yard, not far from the porch.
The Haley site also boasts a new building, the Interpretive Center, dedicated in 2010. The Center houses exhibits that provide an overview of Haley’s literary career, from his early days as a journalist in the Coast Guard, through his struggles as a freelancer, to his ultimate success with Roots, a book he spent 12 years researching and writing. Additional exhibits educate visitors about other Haley writing projects, including a series of magazine interviews and his collaboration with Civil Rights leader Malcolm X, which resulted in the acclaimed book The Autobiography of Malcolm X: As Told to Alex Haley. Other exhibits provide background on Haley’s family history and historical context for Roots, with information about the colonial slave trade and slavery in America. A staff genealogist is available at the Center to help inspired visitors learn something about their own roots.
The Alex Haley Museum and Interpretive Center, 200 Church St. in Henning, is open Tuesday through Saturday 10 a.m.-5 p.m. The phone number is (731) 738- 2240. Consider visiting the Murray-Palmer family gravesite at historic Bethlehem Cemetery, a short drive from the Museum. Directions are available at the Interpretive Center. For more information, go to www.alexhaleymuseum.com.