Gerry Avant: How Alex Haley’s ‘Roots’ ignited interest in family history

Within seven months of its October 1976 publication, Alex Haley’s “Roots: The Saga of an African American Family” had sold more than 1.5 million copies. A television series based on the book telling of Haley’s efforts to trace his family back to the 1760s in Africa aired beginning in January 1977, breaking all records of viewership at that time. Haley’s book, which mingled historical facts with creative interpretations, was described as having “sparked an explosion of interest” in genealogy and family history research.

In 1979, he was the best-known speaker at the World Conference on Records, a gathering that had combined with Brigham Young University’s Family History and Research Seminar. Through the years, attendance at family history and genealogy seminars grew from hundreds to tens of thousands. 

An outgrowth is RootsTech which, since its inception in 2011, has attracted more than 424,000 attendees — including 9,727 in London, England, last year. About half a million people have viewed RootsTech events remotely. This year, RootsTech will be held Feb. 26-29 in Salt Lake City.

I went to the Church Administration Building on Aug. 19, 1977, to report on Haley calling on President N. Eldon Tanner and President Marion G. Romney, then counselors in the First Presidency, and Elder Theodore M. Burton of the First Quorum of the Seventy, who was then executive director of the Church Genealogical Department. Earlier that day, in summer commencement exercises, Brigham Young University awarded Haley an honorary doctorate.

During their visit, President Tanner, President Romney, Elder Burton and Haley talked about several aspects of family history and the growing popularity of research. I gleaned this quote to Haley from President Tanner:

“We’ve been trying for years to get people to go back to the fourth and fifth generations; you come along with one book and they do it.”

Indeed, “Roots” has been credited with creating a new, or renewed, interest in genealogy throughout the world, spurring genealogical research to an all-time high.

In our interview, Haley told me that although “Roots” was about a black man’s family, he promoted genealogical research among all people.

“I hope this interest isn’t just a fad,” he said, “because I think it is one of the most valuable things in our society.”

While visiting with President Tanner and President Romney, Haley was asked what carried him through his long years of research. “The best answer I could give you is faith,” Haley said. “There were times when I would feel that I was going to quit — that the whole thing was foolish, that it was ridiculous.”

He told of an experience that symbolized the most traumatic moments he had while writing the book. He had been working on the section where an ancestor, known to readers and television viewers as Kunte Kinte, and others were in the hold of a slave ship crossing the Atlantic Ocean. Haley said he threw away two batches of 40 pages that he had written.

“It finally struck me what was wrong was what business [had I] sitting up in a high-rise carpeted apartment writing about him in the hold of a slave ship?”

Haley flew to Africa. He booked himself on a freighter sailing to Florida on his return journey. As a retired Coast Guardsman, he arranged to go into the hold where he spent several nights. He forced himself to stay in one position on a plank all night. He listened to the sounds of the ship, felt the cold and saw the darkness and wondered what his ancestor might have heard, felt and seen on his voyage in a slave ship. Each morning, he left the hold and wrote down his impressions.

“That went on until the fourth night,” he said. “That night, somehow I just didn’t want to go back into that hold. It was uncomfortable misery. I went back on the stern of the ship and stood at the rail. I was just standing there, looking at the white trail of froth beating out of the propeller when all of a sudden all my troubles rolled in on me, just like waves. I guess I owed, or was obligated for, $100,000 — and I’d been 11 years on this book. I had in the world maybe $300 in assets. …

“All of a sudden, I had an experience that I never can forget. I began to hear voices; it was no big emotional thing but it was, on the contrary, a simple thing. It was like any of us might hear in a dream; there were people talking. I heard them say that there was an answer to it; all I had to do was step through the rail and drop into the sea.

“I guess I was a millimeter away from stepping through that rail and I heard other voices — nothing sensational — conversational voices saying, ‘No, don’t do that. You must finish. You must go on.’ ”

The voices, he was sure, were those of his ancestors.

He tore himself from the rail and, about midnight, went back into the hold of the ship where, he said, he had what was almost like a religious experience. “From that night forward, I never had the misgivings, the tortures of thinking how ridiculous the thing I was trying to do was, but I began to think that perhaps I was some kind of conduit. I felt that my ancestors had considered and approved me and that I was to go on and try to write.”

Haley told me that he didn’t know about the Church’s Family History Library when he wrote his book. “I don’t know if my book would have been completed any earlier, but the family research aspect of it would have been in hand a lot quicker,” he said.

Commenting on the Church’s efforts to preserve family histories, he said his advice to Latter-day Saints — or anyone else — would be to interview the oldest people in the family, locate and preserve trunks and boxes in attics and closets and hold family reunions where information is exchanged.

Alex Haley died on Feb. 10, 1992. More than 6 million copies of “Roots: The Saga of an African American Family” have been sold; it has been translated into more than 35 languages.