Sites visited on my day trip to Lauderdale County:
1. The Fort Pillow Historic State Park
2. The Alex Haley Museum
3. Gus’s Fried Chicken
Adventures in Lauderdale County #2: The Alex Haley House and Museum
“Find the good–and praise it.”
After visiting Fort Pillow, I made the short drive to the childhood home of Alex Haley.
Though he was born in Ithaca, New York, author Alex Haley spent the summers with his grandparents, the Palmers in Henning, Tennessee. In the evenings, he would spend time on the front porch of this ten-room bungalow and listen to the stories of his grandmother and three elderly aunts, who told him the story of his ancestry.
These stories, which had been embellished over the centuries, stretched back seven generations to the family’s oldest known relative, a slave named Toby who always insisted his name was “Kunta Kintay.” Kintay was captured and sold into slavery one day while he was in the woods near his home in Africa, searching for some wood to cut down to make a drum.
The Alex Haley House, showing the
porch where he would listen to
stories of his family history.
Haley never forgot the stories he heard at the Palmers’ house, even after he left home and joined the Coast Guard, then moved to New York to become a struggling freelance writer. He found success writing for Readers Digest and Playboy, and his 1962 Playboy interview with the prickly Miles Davis set a standard for that magazine’s characteristic interview style. This led to his collaboration with Malcolm X, which produced The Autobiography of Malcolm X.
Haley returned to the Palmer family’s stories and began the twelve-year research process that led to Roots. A researcher in New York suggested that the (misspelled) name “Kunta Kintay” suggested an Mandika origin in Gambia, and that’s where he went to find out more about where he came from. The breakthrough happened when he sat down to speak to a village elder in Juffure, in West Africa. In the course of their conversation, the Mandika man told a story about a distant ancestor named Kunta Kinte who had gone to the woods to find wood for a drum and was never heard from again.
Haley published Roots in October of 1976, and the eight-part series was shown on ABC on eight consecutive nights in January of 1977. He won the Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award for the work, and the miniseries was nominated for thirty-seven Emmys. Haley faced charges of plagiarism for Roots, and later acknowledged that he had unintentionally plagiarized from Harold Courlander’s The African. He died in 1992.
The man himself is buried
in the front of his home
I toured the Alex Haley Home and visited the front porch where he first heard the stories of Kunta Kinte and “Chicken” George. The Palmers were an affluent family, and you can see the evidence of their affluence (built-in closets, a hallway telephone, a Victrola record player) in the house.
Connected to the house is the Museum, which houses many artifacts from Haley’s life. Most of the museum is well-curated (and was certainly a relief after the shabby and tired exhibit at Fort Pillow) and focuses mainly on Roots, with only a few passing mentions of The Autobiography of Malcolm X. I found this interesting, as I was very unimpressed with Malcolm X, and I wonder if its influence is fading as contemporary readers such as myself find it bigoted and less than inspiring.
The staff at the house were extremely friendly and asked me to spread the word about their museum, as they rely on word of mouth for visitors. So that’s exactly what I’m doing. Go visit!
“Alex Haley.” Encyclopedia of World Biography. Detroit: Gale, 1998. Student Resources in Context.
Web. 21 June 2013.