Haley's children keep the legacy of 'Roots' alive

September 24, 1992|By JoAnna Daemmrich | JoAnna Daemmrich,Staff Writer

Like his father before him, William Alex Haley stood on the Annapolis City Dock yesterday, stared out across the sparkling water, and fell silent.

He had just spent the morning talking about cultural diversity, family values and the legacy of "Roots," the Pulitzer Prize-winning book that his father, Alex Haley, spent 12 years researching.

Now he was standing at the foot of the harbor near the spot where his father had come on a pilgrimage and wept one September day 25 years ago. It's here that Kunta Kinte was led ashore in chains on Sept. 29, 1767, beginning the American saga of "Roots." It's a very public place, full of sailors docking their boats and tourists snapping pictures. But for the Haley family, it's sacred ground.

Mr. Haley came to Annapolis yesterday to kick off the sixth annual Kunta Kinte Commemoration and Heritage Festival, a weeklong celebration of African-American culture, music and cuisine.

Alex Haley died of a heart attack at age 70 last February. William Haley spoke about his father's legacy at a breakfast in his honor given by festival organizers. " 'Roots' is the connectedness we have to our past and our future," he told the crowd of 200 people. "What 'Roots' did for us as a movie and book was tell us African-Americans had a life beyond slavery."

At age 46, he looks like his father, distinguished, full of energy, sporting an African pin on his lapel. "Roots" is his family history. So the comparisons are, perhaps, inevitable.

But Mr. Haley says he stopped worrying about living in his father's shadow years ago. "One day it hit me that Jesus had it harder than I did," he said. "I was just the son of Alex Haley. So it got to the point where I used to challenge Dad. I'd tell him that one of these days, somebody's going to come up to you and say, 'Oh, you're Bill Haley's father.' "

It's been seven months since his father died, and he still finds himself talking to him. "I don't think you ever adjust to the death of one of your parents," he said.

He's also busy running the Haley Family Corp. in St. Louis, Mo., and making plans for memorials to his father. He is excited by a proposal for a life-size statue of his father in downtown Annapolis. Friends and fans of the author want to erect a statue of him at City Dock sitting on a bench and telling a story to three children. A plaque, often missed by visitors, currently marks the spot where Kunta Kinte stepped ashore from the slave ship Lord Ligonier.

It lessens the sting, just a little, of the upcoming auction of his father's personal effects and his 127-acre farm near Knoxville, Tenn.

Unless a new round of injunctions halts the proposed sale, many of Alex Haley's research papers and even his Pulitzer Prize will be sold to the highest bidder Oct. 1-3. Alex's brother, George Haley, arranged the auction to repay $570,000 in debts.

Alex Haley established a national reputation with "The Autobiography of Malcolm X" in 1965. In 1976, he published "Roots," which sold more than 5.5 million copies in the United States alone and became the most highly rated television miniseries ever. But his son said Mr. Haley's generous nature outdistanced his literary and financial successes.

"He lived a good life, but he did not lead an exorbitant lifestyle," Mr. Haley said. "But he got involved in a lot of limited partnerships -- real-estate, hotels -- and then the bottom fell out." His father, always a philanthropist, stepped up his charitable contributions when he was diagnosed with lung cancer two years ago. Young college graduates told the son his father put them through school, Mr. Haley said. Strangers received cars from him.

The family is not happy about the auction but doesn't want to get into a public fight, he said. Instead, Mr. Haley and his two sisters, Lydia and Cynthia, are focusing on keeping the legacy of "Roots" alive.

They are organizing a series of trips to Senegal and Gambia, West Africa, where their family originated. They are making plans to install memorials in Annapolis, Henning, Tenn., and Juffereh, the village in which Kunta Kinte was born. They have planned another television miniseries for next February, called "Queen," which traces the other side of their family to Irish aristocrats.

"You can't destroy his legacy just because things went up for DTC sale," Mr. Haley said. "It goes so much deeper than that. Dad was a story teller, and you can't destroy this story."

Kunte Kinte festival

What: The sixth annual Kunta Kinte Commemoration and Heritage Festival features arts and crafts exhibits, a children's discovery tent and ethnic foods.

Where: St. John's College, St. John's Street, Annapolis.

When: Saturday and Sunday

Tickets: Adults $5. Seniors and children ages 3 to 12, $3.

Call: 841-6504

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