By Mike Steely
Ever look for something you’ve prized over the years and have no idea what you’ve done with it? I once had letters from several people like Jimmy Carter before he was president, Alex Haley when he lived in our area, author Stephen King and other correspondence. The one letter I’ve kept is from Bill Landry, former host of “The Heartland Series” and he and I stay in touch occasionally.
Haley, the author of “Roots,” has a strong Knoxville area connection and in his later years moved to what is now the Haley Farm between Clinton and Andersonville near the Museum of Appalachia. Today that farm is an outpost of the Children’s Defense Fund.
Alex Haley’s letters to me, which I’ve lost over the years, were warm and encouraging. He recalled his own life and we talked about one thing in particular.
When Haley move to our area I began corresponding with him and one of our communications dealt with something he and I both had in common. We were both U.S. Coast Guard journalists. I realize that I came to my position as a journalist much easier than did Haley, who entered the service as a mess attendant which was about the only rank back then an African American could attain.
He was only 17 years old when he left school for the Coast Guard. Haley bought a typewriter and began writing while aboard ship. He published a handful of stories in magazines.
After World War II the Coast Guard opened up its ranks. Haley, by then a petty officer, switched to Journalism. He quickly advanced and, in 1959 after 20 years, retired as a Chief Petty Officer.
Haley, who wrote other books, the “Roots” TV series, and many articles, was born in New York State and moved with his mother to his grandfather’s house at Henning in Western Tennessee. He always considered that large 10-room house his childhood home and Haley was buried in the front yard there.
Haley died in 1992 while in Washington State working on a second novel about his family history.
For me, the honors given to Haley by his former military service are special. He was given an honorary degree from the Coast Guard Academy and the U. S. Coast Guard Cutter Alex Haley, stationed in Alaska, is notable.
His grandfather’s large house is now the home of the Alex Haley Museum and Interpretive Center. The home is a state historic site and is open to visitors. You can get more information at www.alexhaleymuseum.org or call the museum at (731)738-2240.
Henning is on Highway 51, south of Dyersburg and northeast of Memphis. Ironically the highway is designated by the state as the “Jefferson Davis Highway,” honoring the first and only president of the Confederacy. It’s a bit of a day’s drive over to Henning but there are lots of state parks to see along the way or as you return, plus there’s always something to do in Nashville.
If you’d like to visit Haley’s grave and the museum it might be wise to call ahead to see if they are open during the pandemic.
Of course, you can also venture out to Morningside Park here in Knoxville and stop at Alex Haley Square at 1600 Dandridge Avenue. There you can visit the largest sculpture of the renowned author anywhere.