Annapolis mourns man who fixed its position in black U.S. history

February 11, 1992|By Michael R. Driscoll

Alex Haley brought black history to life for many in Annapolis.

It was at City Dock where Kunta Kinte stepped ashore in the chains of a slave in 1767, beginning a 150-year American saga known as "Roots." A simple plaque marks the spot.

Yesterday, those who knew Mr. Haley and those who simply admired his storytelling and writing spoke of him with great warmth.

Zastrow Simms, a community relations specialist with the Annapolis Housing Authority, remembered Mr. Haley as "not one of those writers who write about the city and then never come here. He made it his business to take part in the annual Kunta Kinte celebrations. He was really close to the city, and all the black community is saddened."

Six years ago, civic leaders established the Kunta Kinte Heritage Festival to honor Mr. Haley's contributions and celebrate black history and art.

Leonard Blackshear, chairman of the September festival, said Mr. Haley's death yesterday cut short a remarkable career. "So much of his work was still before him, not behind him. His great legacy is that he has laid a foundation so that mankind can truly begin to understand the unity we are capable of achieving."

Mr. Haley's book, he added, "made Annapolis the symbolic Ellis Island of the African-American story."

At the time of his death, Mr. Haley was working on a book about his hometown of Henning, Tenn., and another book about his maternalgrandmother, said his youngest brother, Julius Haley.

An official statement from the City of Annapolis said Mr. Haley: "perhaps more than any other contemporary American author, brought life, meaning and understanding to the African-American experience through his award-winning book 'Roots.' As a result of the international popularity of this fascinating saga, Mr. Haley and the city of Annapolis are forever linked."

Annapolis' affection for Mr. Haley was returned.

Julius Haley, a Silver Spring architect, said, "There was a rather close mutual admiration between the family and the city, thanks to the annual Kunta Kinte celebrations."

Mr. Haley spent a dozen years researching and writing "Roots."

When he was in Annapolis, he turned to the state archivists and librarians for help.

"He was a fascinating person to listen to," said Phebe E. Jacobson. "He could tell the same story over and over again, and it would still be exciting no matter how many times he told it.

Ms. Jacobson, described by Blackshear as "one of the unsung heroes of 'Roots,' " worked with Haley a number of times, during his initialvisits in the spring and fall of 1976, up until his final visit last April.

"I never knew Alex not to get along with anybody he met," said DTC Ms. Jacobson, now retired.

Gregory Stiverson, the assistant state archivist, echoed her sentiments, calling Haley "very warm and approachable, the kind of person you want to be with. Everyone could relate to Alex Haley on a human level -- not just African-Americans, but everyone."

City political activists say Mr. Haley's writings helped shape their careers.

Carl Snowden, a city councilman and community activist, said, "There are people who write history and those who make history. Alex Haley did both. His two books, 'Roots,' and 'The Autobiography of Malcolm X,' influenced millions of people in their development, and I am one of them."

Mr. Simms said, "Another drum major has passed on, and it's up to us who are left behind to make sure the young don't forget Alex Haley, but I don't think they will."

Memorial services

Three memorial services are being planned in Anne Arundel County to mark the passing of author Alex Haley, including a candlelight vigil tomorrow at 6 p.m. at the site of the Kunta Kinte plaque at the Annapolis City Dock.

Kunta Kinte, Mr. Haley's ancestor, was brought to Annapolis as a slave before the American Revolution. The family stories about this man eventually inspired Haley to begin the search he documented in "Roots."

The vigil will be followed at 7 p.m. by a memorial service at the First Baptist Church, 31 W. Washington St., Annapolis. For information, call (410) 268-8987.

The Black Student Union of Anne Arundel Community College will hold a memorial service on Feb. 13 at 11 featuring poet Nikki Giovanni, at the college's Pascal Center.

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