Retrace ‘Roots’ at Alex Haley Museum in Henning

August 10, 2012

By Leslie LaChance

Alex Haley Museum in Henning, Tennessee

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.

Alex Haley Museum in Henning, Tennessee

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.

Exhibit at Alex Haley Museum in Henning, Tennessee

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.

Contact Information
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.

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Comments

  1. dan fisher says:

    why the name changes between the book and the movie? which are the real names?

  2. Louis says:

    Hi, just out of interest, Was Colonel Frederick Warner a real person that was congressman of henning ? I’ve tried finding his history on google but just found the tv character. What was his real name?

    Kind regards

  3. Rick Griminger says:

    My wife and I fould our visit to Henning in April 1993 to be extremely inspiring! The family has always had our respect and admiration.

  4. Shelly Stevens says:

    I am so humble about this AWESOME story, until when i read or watch it on TV. I started doing a family tree on all the characters. Kunta Kinte was a Special and Awesome man, and never gave up on family! His baby girl KIZZY (STAY PUT) was his pride and joy! I cry because God gives us so much WISDOM to love one another and not hurt others because they hurt u!! No matter how life is WE must put GOD 1st and everthing will come together as one!! Chicken George was the backbone of the family,he himself was another KUNTA KINTE his late grandfather!! I recordered all the parts and take notes on every episodes!! Beautiful Kizzy was so precious and its ashame what Tom Moore did but look how God works she had a son that bought them out of slavery and in a million years we would have never thought a white man would bring a black family out of slavery!!,HALLEIUGH!! Kunte Kinte, wife Bell daughter Kizzy, son Chicken George wife Matilda children Tom Moore, Lewis, and vergil! Toms wife Irene!! I would like the book collections on the whole story!! Thank you Alex Haley!!

  5. tom murray says:

    hi
    When did tom murray and his wife irene pass away?

  6. Allison says:

    What country in Africa did Alex Haley’s family come from?

  7. Topazshell says:

    I love the painting.

  8. ronald towns says:

    hi i was at your museum a few years ago i use to live around the corner several years ago before the movie came out,my question is how come you don’t show the actual pictures that you have in the museum of the relatives on your website?

  9. Avalla Henning says:

    I am from the original Henning family. I was out of touch and until my adulthood I never knew this town even existed. I am excited to one day visit and learn more about my identity

  10. David Delp says:

    One of the best story’s and movies I have every seen or read, thanks <>David