My Alex Haley ‘Connection’

There is a lot of excitement growing as the 2010 Southern California Genealogical Society Jamboree gets closer. The Jamboree, scheduled for June 11, 12, and 13 in Burbank, California, is one of the largest annual genealogy conferences. This year, Jamboree is featuring an opportunity for attendees to be a part of a live Genealogy Gems podcast, produced and hosted by my friend Lisa Louise Cooke.

Lisa’s podcasts are always entertaining and educational. For the live podcast, Lisa has lined up Maureen Taylor, the Photo Detective, Suzanne Russo Adams of, and Chris Haley, genealogist and nephew of author, Alex Haley, the author of Roots. Seeing the Alex Haley connection sparked memories from a past hobby pursuit.

For some reason, now forgotten, I began collecting autographs around 1980. This was around the same time that I began pursuing my family’s history (in a genealogy world that did not include computers, software, and online databases). I started the autograph collection by initially writing letters to celebrities of all types. I would enclose a small, blank file card along with a stamped, self-addressed envelope, requesting that they sign the card and return it to me. To my amazement, it worked. Notable individuals like Sir Laurence Olivier, Henry Kissinger, Sen. Edward Kennedy, and Jonas Salk, all signed and returned my file cards.

Emboldened, I began sending photos that I cut out of books and magazines. A favourite magazine to use for this purpose was the annual Life Year in Photos. Below is the full-page photo that I sent to Roots author Alex Haley. Mr. Haley signed the photo, inscribed to “Ian G. Hadden – warm wishes to you from Juffure Village’s head woman, Mrs. Binta Kinta, and me, and from the whole ROOTS family of Kunta Kinte! Alex Haley.”

He also sent a letter to me, typed on his personal stationery and on which he even typed in a corrected phone number. The letter was dated, April 21, 1981 (the same date he signed the photograph). His letter reads, “It’s my pleasure to sign the picture you’ve sent, which is enclosed. But pray drop me a note advising in what magazine, and what issue, did that excellent picture appear, as I’d love to obtain one, if possible. I’m sure that the occasion was my first return to Juffure Village after Roots had been published, when there were many photographers clicking away. As I say, I’d just love to obtain a copy of this one. Best wishes, Alex Haley”

Alex Haley’s Roots earned a Pulitzer Prize special award in 1977. The book, a novelization of his family history, also became a hugely popular television miniseries that still ranks among the most watched television broadcasts of all time, earning nine Emmy awards.

Roots also caused a huge surge in the popularity of genealogy although I don’t think it had that impact on me. My family history interest developed as a result of other events. Nevertheless, I treasure the autographed photo and letter sent to me all those years ago by none other than Alex Haley. Unfortunately, I won’t be able to attend this year’s Jamboree – but I’ll be listening to the Genealogy Gems podcast when it is published!

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