Posted by Ancestry Team on May 27, 2016 in Website

The upcoming remake of Alex Haley’s Roots has many of our senior staff at ProGenealogists reminiscing the impact that the book and miniseries had on their decisions to become professional genealogists.

Despite the later questions over Mr. Haley’s research and writing, there is no doubt the “Roots phenomenon” ignited a passion for finding one’s ancestral heritage that is still burning today.

So we asked our senior genealogists about how the “Roots Phenomenon” affected their choices to pursue a career as professional genealogists.

crystal
In high school I was collecting stories of my relationship with friends (literally on my back) when “Roots” premiered on television.

Crystal Beutler, ProGenealogist

Back in 1977, I was a senior in high school. One of my family members (Stan Margulies) was a producer in Hollywood and working on a project that year – a mini-series based on the novel by Alex Haley called Roots.   During the filming, Stan’s wife Lillian sent us updates often so we were excited to watch the premiere as a family. I had no idea how much that story would change my life. Watching over eight nights moved me beyond words as the struggle of Alex’s ancestors came alive on our little TV screen. It got me thinking about the story of my own family – especially since my dad had died a few years earlier – and his father two years prior to that. There were no family stories or pictures, and I had a great desire to explore our family history.

A few months after the movie premier, Alex Haley, as a gift, sent Lillian a copy of her genealogy – the Carlson side of our family. We were all so excited to learn about our Swedish ancestors, and the fact that Alex did the work was especially meaningful. There were no computers at that time, or online databases, so I was intrigued as to how he found all that information. It prompted me to take a trip to the Family History Library in Salt Lake City. I had no idea where to start as I wandered around the place looking at all the white-haired men and women pouring through microfiche on weird looking machines. I went to the library week after week, and one day, I found a story in an old genealogical magazine about one of my ancestors – Thomas Farish, who owned a large plantation in Charlottesville, Virginia called The Farm. During the Civil War, when Sheridan marched through Virginia with the Union Army, The Farm was seized and used as headquarters for Col. George Custer. My ancestor, who was fighting for the Confederacy heard about the capture of his plantation and worried about his family, came home through enemy lines to see if his family and property were safe. He was captured and taken to his own home for trial. A gallows was constructed on his property. Sometime between capture and the trial, Col. Custer and my ancestor Thomas learned that they both belonged to the brotherhood of Masons. That common thread saved Thomas’ life as Col. Custer interceded on his behalf with General Sheridan. Thomas was set free. That discovery got me hooked on genealogy and I’ve been building my family story ever since – for over 37 years.

Learning that my ancestor was a plantation owner was difficult since I had just watched a mini-series about the plight of slaves in the South. I wondered if Thomas was kind to his slaves, and what happened to all of them after the Civil War. I remember looking for documents at the library that might include their names, but as I was new to genealogy, I had no idea how to go about that. Over the years, I’ve learned how to look through deeds, and other records to learn about slave transactions.

The opportunity to turn a passion into a career has been so rewarding. Now that I work for Ancestry ProGenealogists, I’ve enjoyed helping African American families trace their slave ancestors. It feels like recompense for the slaves of Thomas Farish who once worked The Farm.

P.S. My cousin Stan went on to win an Emmy for his work on Roots (which was the most the third highest rated episode for any type of television series, and the second most watched overall series finale in U.S. television history.) It was an exciting moment for me to hold that award when I visited him in California just after he received it. Make sure you tune in to the remake on Memorial Day, you will be glad you did.

Gordon Remington, ProGenealogist

gordonI started doing genealogy as a hobby in the summer of 1968. I was 10 years old at the time. By the time I turned 18 in 1975, it had grown into a full blown obsession.

Sometime before Roots was published in October 1976, there were several articles by Alex Haley on how he traced his ancestry in Reader’s Digest, to which my parents subscribed. I remember reading them hungrily.

I started reading the book Roots in January of 1977 when I was laid up for three months from a back injury in college, where I was studying history.

After that I was keenly aware of the great interest in genealogy that Roots had kindled, both the book and the miniseries. And, despite the later questions over Mr. Haley’s research and writing, that interest in genealogy remains strong today.

In the summer of 1978, I approached my father with the idea of becoming a professional genealogist. I wrote to the Board for Certification of Genealogists and inquired about certification. I had already been to Salt Lake City once and also the National Archives.

Dad encouraged me to stick with school, but my fascination with genealogy as a profession possessed me.

In late 1978, I moved to Denver and began making regular trips to Salt Lake City until I moved here in September 1979. The day after I arrived I got a job as a researcher with a small genealogical firm.

In 1980, the LDS Church sponsored the “World Conference on Records,” the keynote speaker was Alex Haley. Of course, I attended.

So while I cannot say that Roots ignited my passion for genealogy, its advent as I was entering adult life greatly encouraged me to explore genealogy as a profession.

Juliana Szucs, Genealogist and Sr. Community Managerjuliana

My mom, Loretto “Lou” Szucs, had started researching our family history in the early 1970s. By the time Roots was published in 1976 and the miniseries aired in 1977, she was deeply involved in the work of genealogical societies, including the founding of the Federation of Genealogical Societies in 1976.

The impact of Roots transformed family history at local and national levels. Previously, there had been a perception that family history could only be done by the elite few who could afford to travel or pay professionals to conduct research on their behalf. Alex Haley’s experience tracing his African American family history using many records found at the National Archives and oral interviews made it clear that it was possible for almost everyone to discover their own family story.

As interest in family history spiked in the late 70s, visits to the National Archives increased greatly. Genealogical organizations grew and many more were formed, mostly as a result of the “Roots phenomena.” Everyone wanted to discover their personal family story, regardless of whether their ancestors arrived on the Mayflower or if they descended from immigrants who arrived much later. For me, it made history real rather than some abstract thing to be learned in school. Watching the brutality of slavery unfold on the screen connected that historical period to real people and made me wonder about my family’s role in history. And it made me appreciate and take an interest in the work my mom was doing to discover and preserve the stories of our family and the lives that led to me.

Part 2 of Alex Haley’s Roots premieres on Monday, May 31 at 9p/8c on the History Channel. To see the part 1 of the series, Alex Haley’s family tree plus, clips from the upcoming series visit History Channel.

Connect with our ProGenealogists team here.

7 Comments

  1. Etta Smith

    I was one of those who began genealogy after watching Roots. I started then and have not stopped since. I do not know if I have enough time in this lifetime to complete everything I want to do concerning genealogy. I will also watch Roots again this time around.

  2. BEE

    I will never forget my first reaction to “Roots”, thinking it had to be “made up”. I never heard of “oral history”! I never realized people passed down stories from generation to generation! My Dad and his father never talked about their past. Luckily, as I began to explore our family history, I had an aunt and uncle still living who gave me some information. Of course, I was blessed with a mother who loved history, loved to read, and loved to tell stories. I’m so thankful that we captured them on video before she died, especially since we ignored her “tales” for so many years! So thank you Mom, I still feel your presence all these years later as I continue this amazing journey into our past and thanks to the internet, connecting with relatives across the country and beyond. And thanks to Alex Haley for all his writings – I think I read them all – and “Roots” was the start!

  3. CH

    I saw the original “Roots” series and was impressed by it, but it wasn’t until 1983 that I started doing my own family research.

    I took a night class at our local Community College on the “History of the American Woman.” That really sparked my interest on women in history. I had a few pedigree charts tucked away my mother had done years before, which had a few lines that went back to early Massachusetts and I dug them out. I went to our local California University and browsed the stacks and found lots of books on my home town because it was prominent in the industrial revolution. I borrowed as many as I could carry and found many names that matched names in my mother’s charts.

    Then I started going to the local LDS Family History Center. It was slow going because there were no computers and we had to order microfilm, use books and order records. I joined the local genealogical society which had very few members. Then I discovered my great-great-grandmother had paid someone to do her family history so she could join the “Society of Mayflower Descendants.” And it went on from there. I wish my mother was still alive so I could show her what I have done, and all is documented with many sources.

    I will very likely watch the new “Roots” program but I expect it will be more gory than the first one due to the more lax restrictions on violence and such. I hope it has as much story value as the first version.

  4. It was a member of my family, John Ridout, who in 1767 auctioned Kunta Kinte – a young man who’d been abducted from his village, Julfureh in the Gambia, and taken to America on board the Lord Ligonier. A few years back, my distant cousin, Orlando Ridout IV, publicly apologised to Alex Hailey for the actions of his ancestor.

    I watched Roots on TV back in the 1970’s and later bought the DVD recordings. I didn’t know until 2005, when I started researching my family history, that Ridout would turn out to be a relation of mine; it was quite an uncomfortable finding!

  5. Sandra Grewe

    When the Mini Series of “Roots” was first shown on TV in 1977, I was looking forward to watching the Series. I could not get through the 1st night it was shown. The way the slaves were treated sickened me; my husband continued to watch the entire series and he said it was a riveting movie. At the time I was not into genealogy and it wasn’t until 2014 that I joined Ancestry.com and continued for about 6 months. I discovered some of my descendants survived the Mayflower journey and were connected to British and French Royalty. I first found that I was related to George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Ulysses Grant. I was saddened to learn George & Abe and other powerful male relatives owned Plantations with slaves. The story on George is that he knew “… how to fiercely whip a slave if the overseer was not whipping a slave hard enough …” When he died, his “Will” divided the slaves up and gave some of them to family members but kept some slaves for Martha to keep the plantation in operation. A family member told her the slaves left at the Washington Plantation were going to start a revolution and she set all slaves free. I won’t be watching the remake of “Roots” because of the horrific violence. I have traced my own roots to the mid 1300’s and I am fascinated about the living conditions even if they were wealthy landowners. I would love to visit SLC and stay for several weeks researching my heart out. I’m waiting to join Ancestry.com again to dig deeper. I enjoyed the comments that are shown, especially Crystal Beutler’s comments on her cousin, Stan Margulies, who produced the mini-series won an award. That’s very cool. Ms. Beutler refers to General Sheridan several times. I believe she was referring to The Union’s General William Tecumseh Sherman, an interesting man.

  6. Teresa Monhollen

    I remember as a child watching the “Roots” miniseries on television. It gripped my heart as a child & it still does today. When the original “Roots” came out on DVD, I grabbed one! I was ecstatic to hear that an updated version of “Roots” was coming out & I couldn’t wait to see it. I loved it so much! Again, it gripped my heart. It’s so hard to believe people of color was treated & divided from one another. Barbaric really. I love History & our children today needs to know as much as they can, so that they will know who they are. Thanks so much for this blog & Ancestry.com I am in the middle of my geneology right now & I’ve cried so much to see my ancestors. Ancestry is absolutely amazing & I would recommend it to anyone who asks me about it. I would tell them what an epic thrill it has been thus far. I can’t wait to see what I find next!

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