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Twila Van Leer: What I learned from Alex Haley

In November 1976, I had the privilege of interviewing Alex Haley, the African-American author whose watershed book and subsequent television miniseries titled "Roots" gave family history an unprecedented shot in the arm.

The book and TV series chronicled Haley's family, beginning with Kunta Kinte, a young black man captured and sold into slavery, through several generations that became a microcosm of slavery and its aftermath into modern American life. It set off a huge spate of genealogical research among America's African-American population, but it also put a new spotlight on family history across the board.

The book won a Pulitzer Prize, and the miniseries garnered an estimated 30 million viewers, roughly 40 to 60 percent of all Americans. Haley was still riding the crest of the popularity wave when he came to Salt Lake City in late November 1976. He was then being hailed by many as "the patron saint of family history."

When I learned recently that a remake of the "Roots" miniseries was being aired on the History Channel over the Memorial Day weekend, I was taken back to the interview that appeared in the Deseret News on Nov. 16, 1976. Because I can't remember where I put my glasses five minutes ago, let alone the details of a news article I wrote 40 years ago, I went to the LDS Church History Department to see if I could resurrect a copy. That department became the repository for Deseret News clippings and photos some years ago. Through the good graces of department employees, I was able to review Haley's clipping file, a pudgy envelope containing information up to his death on Feb. 10, 1992, at the age of 70. Here's the pith from the article that appeared under my byline:

Haley said he believed that Americans in general were suffering from "rootlessness." The solution, he said, was to recover their own family roots. "Talk to the oldest members of the family about the most minute details they can recall," he said. "Save those old trunks and boxes of memorabilia. Once they are gone, they are irreplaceable."

That is still good advice for family historians.

Haley was complimentary of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' family home evening program and took advantage of the church's extensive genealogical resources to put together a pedigree chart for the mother of Merv Griffin, whose TV show was his next step on the celebrity tour.

He recounted the "purely capricious" idea he had for writing a book, a notion that struck while he was on duty as a member of the Coast Guard. He realized, he said, that words "could be felt." After a slew of rejection slips, he began the slow, painful path to publication. In a visit to the National Archives, he found, purely by accident, a census on which was listed the names of ancestors he had learned of from "the old women in my family."

For nine years, he tracked the roots of his family clear back to Africa, where a young man "left home to chop wood for a drum and was never seen in his village again." A "griot" or oral historian from an African tribe recalled the same event. From intensive research and the almost mythical tales of his youth, Haley patched together a story that started with the youth enslaved in Africa and followed that man's descendants to the mid-1900s.

At the time of his 1976 visit to Salt Lake City, more than 450,000 copies of his book had sold, according to the article.

Last Saturday, in the June 4 edition of the LDS Church News, an article announced that the History Channel, in recognition of the "Roots" remake, has begun a campaign to support the LDS Church's Freedmen's Bureau Project (online at discoverfreedmen.org), an undertaking of FamilySearch International, the church's internet family history service.

The project, begun a year ago, focuses on the Civil War-era records of nearly 4 million African-Americans who were emancipated during and after the war. Volunteers are transcribing information from the digitized records as part of the church's vast indexing program. Ultimately, the information will be located in a digital archive at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of African American History and Culture. An exhibit is scheduled to open Sept. 24.

I think Alex Haley must be pleased.

Twila Van Leer is a former Deseret News editor and staff writer who has recently been called to serve as a family history missionary.