5 Star Stories: Museum and interpretive center honors famous author Alex Haley

Published: Sep. 21, 2021 at 5:25 PM CDT
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HENNING, Tenn. (WMC) - The small town of Henning, Tennessee in Lauderdale County is home to a museum that honors one of the 20th century’s most famous authors.

The childhood home of Alex Haley has been the centerpiece of the museum for well over 35 years, making the Alex Haley Museum and Interpretive Center a must-see in West Tennessee.

In 1977, a record-breaking 130 million people tuned in to watch “Roots: The Saga of an American Family” when the miniseries aired on television screens across the country. It was an adaptation of a book by the same name that was written by Haley.

“Alex Haley lived here in Henning with his maternal grandparents, Will and Cynthia Palmer, 1921 to 1929,” according to museum site manager, Richard Griffin.

Many consider the porch of the two-bedroom home the place where the book was born. As a child, Haley would sit there and listen to his maternal grandmother and aunts as they sat on the porch swing and shared their family’s story. As Griffin put it, this is the place where Alex heard the stories about that “old African.”

That “African” was named Kunta Kinte in his book and the TV miniseries. He was a Gambian man who was kidnapped in 1767, taken to America, and sold as a slave. Haley claimed to be a seventh-generation descendant. Haley also said the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel evolved from 12 years of genealogy research and international travel.

“Roots” inspired millions of people to consider their own family history and genealogy and raised awareness of Black American history.

“Alex kind of ignited a spark under both African Americans and Europeans to learn more about who you are, where you come from,” explained Griffin.

Griffin said the Alex Haley Boyhood Home opened as a museum in 1986 under the Tennessee Historical Commission, of which there are about 18 sites.

“We are one of the 18. We’re the only one in West Tennessee and we’re the only one honoring an African American,” Griffin boasted.

Inside the house, you’ll see artifacts that the Palmer family used at that time.

“Alex and his brother George approved these items as being almost identical to what was in the house and its placement in each room is what they remember,” explained Griffin.

The home stood alone for dozens of years until 2010 when the interpretive center opened behind the house. The center has won awards for architectural design as well as excellence in masonry. It’s filled with artifacts, even a life-sized replica of a slave ship.

“$1.4 million the state paid to have the building erected. And here we were able to acquire a room to do genealogy in, a larger office, better office, a larger and better gift shop, a theater and wonderful exhibit hall, and lobby area. Our lobby area was designed so that when we have programs, Black History Month, or anytime during the year, we can have a place to have those programs,” Griffin explained.

Griffin would like for the Alex Haley Museum and Interpretive Center to become a community meeting place for years to come.

“Our hope is that people will visit the Alex Haley Museum and they will be inspired to do their own research, to discover who they are. More than just name, more than just a location where one was born, where one’s parents were born, but exactly who you are and what does that mean,” he said.

Haley enrolled at Alcorn State University at age 15 and later joined the U.S. Coast Guard. During his enlistment, he taught himself to write and later became a petty officer first-class in the rating of journalist. He eventually become the Coast Guard’s first chief journalist before retiring. He then began another phase of his journalism career as the senior editor of Reader’s Digest magazine and later conducted the first interviews ever for Playboy magazine, authoring what turned into a significant feature of Playboy.

Some of his interviews included jazz musician Miles Davis, boxing great Muhammad Ali, and civil rights leader Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., just to name a few. Haley’s interview with George Lincoln Rockwell, leader of the American Nazi Party, was recreated in the 1979 sequel miniseries, “Roots: The Next Generations,” starring James Earl Jones and Marlon Brando.

Spike Lee’s screenplay for the 1992 movie “Malcolm X,” which starred Denzel Washington, was adapted from Haley’s first book, “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” which was published in 1965 and has been a consistent best-seller ever since. Haley’s book, “Queen: The Story of an American Family” was also adapted as a miniseries and broadcast to television audiences in 1993.

Alexander Murray Palmer Haley died in 1992. For more information about Alex Haley Museum and Interpretive Center, click here.

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