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 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
I 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 Manager
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.