You might know Alex Haley from his works of historical fiction: Roots and The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Maybe you know him as the person who helmed a series of Playboy interviews and later earned a Pulitzer Prize. Or perhaps, you know him as the retired Coast Guard veteran who got his earliest start writing for newspapers in the military. No matter what you know about Haley, we’re sure there’s more for you to learn.
Who was this dynamic man?
Alex Haley was born in 1921 in Ithaca, New York. His father, Simon, was a WWI veteran. At the time of Alex’s birth, his father was a graduate student at Cornell, studying agriculture. His mother, Bertha, was a musician and teacher of both elementary and high school students.
During his early years, Alex, who was called Palmer, lived with his grandparents Will and Cynthia in Henning, Tennessee, so his father could concentrate on finishing his graduate work. However, when his grandfather died, Haley’s parents returned from Ithaca. There, Simon resumed his studies at Lane College.
An early achiever
With two stellar role models, Alex grew up understanding the value of education. He graduated from high school at 15 and enrolled directly at Alcorn AM College in Mississippi. After a year there, he transferred to Elizabeth City State Teacher’s College in North Carolina. His early successes at school did not transfer to collegiate life, and Alex had a difficult time keeping his grades up.
USCG Alex Haley (Wikimedia Commons)
Writing with the Coast Guard
Three years later, in 1939, Alex quit school and joined the Coast Guard. He enlisted as a seaman, but because of the rife discrimination present in the Coast Guard’s ranks, Alex was forced to work as a mess attendant. To relieve his boredom on ship, Haley brought a typewriter onboard and typed letters for his shipmates. It was at that time Alex also started writing short stories and articles, which he then sent out for publication to magazines and newspapers. As with most writing endeavors, Alex’s attempts at publication were largely met with rejection letters, but a handful did manage to place in reputable journals. This early encouragement reinforced Alex’s passion to continue writing.
By 1949, Haley was permitted to transfer into the field of journalism with the Coast Guard and had achieved the rank of First Class Petty Officer. He was soon promoted to Chief Journalist with the Coast Guard. This is the position he held until his retirement in 1959 after 20 years of service.
During his time in the Coast Guard, Haley received the American Defense Service Medal, the WWII Victory Medal and an honorary degree from the Coast Guard Academy. Later, a Coast Guard cutter was named for him: the USCGS Alex Haley.
After the Coast Guard
After retiring from the Coast Guard, Haley set out to make his way as a freelance writer and journalist. It took three years for Haley to get his break when he interviewed famous trumpet player Miles Davis. The interview was published in Playboy, and the piece was so successful that Playboy commissioned Haley to write a series of pieces that would eventually be known as “The Playboy Interviews.”
This collection of work featured an interview with prominent Black activists, musicians, actors and others. Following an interview with Malcolm X, Haley got the idea to write a book about the famous activist. Two years later, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, was released. This seminal book of the Civil Rights Movement helped memorialize the life of Malcolm X, thanks in part to Haley’s efforts.
The success of The Autobiography of Malcolm X transformed Haley’s role as a writer. He began to receive offers to lecture at universities and write. Instead, he chose to embark on a new project that aimed to trace and retell the story of his ancestors’ journey from Africa to America as slaves.
It took Haley a decade to research the book. During that time, he traveled back and forth to three continents, examining slave ship records at archives in the United States, England and Gambia. Despite his strong journalism experience as a Coast Guard journalist, Haley later said that it would have been impossible for him to completely recapture the true spirit and harrowing experience of those aboard the slave ship. Roots was finally published in 1976 and went on to sell millions of copies.