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Alex Haley – Genealogy Hero or Heel?

alex haley

Today is the birth anniversary of Alex Haley, author of The Autobiography of Malcolm X and Roots: The Saga of an American Family who was born on 11 August 1921 in Ithaca, New York. Earlier today I posted about Haley at GeneaBloggers and shared the post on social media including Facebook.

Who knew that after almost 40 years since the publication of Roots and even over 20 years since Haley’s death in 1992, the impact of Alex Haley along with his deeds and misdeeds still seem to hit a nerve in the genealogy community.

Your Opinion: Has Haley Helped or Hindered Genealogy?

Up until this morning I didn’t realize that wishing someone – even a dead someone – happy birthday could be controversial. If you’ve been involved in genealogy for the past few decades you should be aware of the impact and presence of Haley through the book Roots and the television miniseries which appeared in the United States in 1977 and took the country by storm.

However, many genealogists may not know that Haley’s work was not without its critics including accusations of plagiarism.

Just from this morning’s comments I can see that there are many opinions which is a good thing. And it means there is still a desire to talk about Haley and his work. Use the comments section below to do so, and let’s keep the focus on facts as much as possible; if you want to share your opinion and view on Haley’s influence, make it clear it is your opinion (but still try to back it up with facts). Comments will be moderated.

Haley Was a Hero To Me

I’ll be honest – when I was 14 years old I was glued to the television in 1977 watching Roots. I watched some of the episodes with my great-grandparents who helped raised me and I started asking questions about our own family. I owe my genealogy journey to Haley and I feel comfortable in thanking him for raising the awareness of genealogy and family history in this country and around the world.

I also feel that Haley deserves credit for making sure that African-American genealogy research was not neglected and he galvanized many African-Americans to go out and search their past.

As for plagiarism – I do believe that Haley plagiarized earlier work and likely padded his research to create a more engaging story. I also know that Haley was a master of the media of that time and some of the criticism is directed towards his methods of “marketing” the Roots phenomenon. Haley’s misdeeds have helped me put his work in perspective especially now as I am directly involved in the genealogy industry. But I hope I never lose that sense of amazement and wonder which Haley inspired in me.

I urge you to read both articles authored by Elizabeth Shown Mills and Gary B. Mills which are linked below – they are some of the best analysis of Haley’s work from a genealogy perspective and will help you understand the issues involved in terms of Haley’s research.


This is only a partial list and a starting point for research and discussion, which I have curated. You are free to add your own resources in the comments section.

©2014, copyright Thomas MacEntee. All rights reserved.

Image: Alex Haley Speaks, digital image, The Alex Haley Roots Foundation. Used by permission.