Haley’s ‘Roots’ are roots of the nation

Haley’s ‘Roots’ are roots of the nation

Posted: Thursday, February 9, 2012 11:05 am
By: Bessie Cherry, Special to The Press

Haley's 'Roots' are roots of the nation | Alex Haley, "Roots",The Alex Haley Museum & Interpretive Center, Huntingdon

Mrs. Magnolia Johnson, 89, (right) is pictured with her daughter, Ms. Beverly Johnson, holding hands beneath a larger-than-life painting of Alex Haley, created by artist, Jerry Johnson.
We adventurers go out in search of greener pastures, if only while vacationing, in hopes of seeing the most momentous of people, places and things. While venturing out, Weakley Countians often forget what famous treasures we have “rooted” right in our own back yards. Located about an hour and a half southwest of Martin is a place full of knowledge about our history and our heritage.
I am referring to The Alex Haley Museum & Interpretive Center, a place where you can learn everything there is to know about this world-renowned, legendary researcher and author, as well as his works, while meeting, perhaps, some incredibly notable individuals including: Ms. Beverly Johnson and her mother, Mrs. Magnolia (Murray) Johnson: relatives of the late, great, Alexander “Alex” Murray Palmer Haley.
Mrs. Johnson and her daughter are Haley’s last remaining “Murray” descendants still residing in Lauderdale County.
Most famous for his Pulitzer Prize winning novel, “Roots,” Alex Haley, much like his high-spirited, African ancestors of The Gambia, also had a spirit of his own, choosing to pursue his own dreams, explore his “Roots” and write, instead of following in the footsteps of his father, a university professor.  
Little did Alex’s father know that in time, his son would one day touch the nations with his words, and go down in history as one of the greatest historical and humanitarian authors in the world!
Haley was told throughout his childhood that he was a descendant of Kunta Kinte, a proud West African warrior who was captured during his latter teenage years by Americans while out searching, alone, for wood to make a drum. Upon his captivity, Kinte was shipped, along with approximately 200 other slaves, to the United States via a slave ship, which ported in Annapolis, Maryland. There, Kinte was auctioned to a Virginian slave master.
With this knowledge embedded into Haley’s soul, he embarked upon his own adventure, one that would lead him to West Africa, not once but twice, on a mission to trace the origins of his bloodline.
With the help of a translator, Haley spoke face to face with an African Griot during his second trip to Africa, hoping to learn more about Kunta Kinte, whom he had been told was his great-great-great-great- grandfather.
According to Haley, the Griot’s job was to record, by memory, years upon years of tribal records of the Juffure tribe, the tribe of which the Kintes belonged; the Griot talked for hours about the Kinte clan of the Juffure tribe. Then, finally, after hours and hours of speaking, the Griot finally mentioned the young ‘Kinte’ who once went out into the woods alone, looking for wood to make a drum and was never seen or heard from ever again.
That’s when Alex knew, absolutely, that he had indeed traced his roots back to West Africa!
Kinte, who spent the rest of his life enslaved in America, enduring the harsh brutalities of what the world considered to be just a “trade” at that time, died not knowing that what his body and soul felt to be the worst of entrapments would one day become his greatest legacy.
Kinte, whose master changed his name to Toby, married and had a daughter named Kizzy, which means “stay put” in African tongue. Kizzy was sold to a slave master from North Carolina, and at his hands begat a biracial son, George, who became a world renowned, prize cock fighter just before the abolition of slavery.
Upon receiving his freedom, George Lea Murray (referred to as “Chicken George” in both the book “Roots” and also the 1977 television network mini-series, because of his professional cock fighting talents) moved from North Carolina to Henning, traveling with his family and approximately 30 other families by “rockaways,” which would be somewhat equivalent to wagon trains.
“Chicken George” Lea Murray, as well as Haley’s mother and other relatives, is buried in Henning’s historic, segregated, Bethlehem Cemetery.
“Alex is the great, great, grandson of Chicken George, and I am the great- great-granddaughter of Chicken George. My mother, who is 89, is the great-granddaughter of Chicken George,” says Ms. Johnson, Program Coordinator for the Alex Haley Museum and Interpretive Center.
Ms. Johnson, who also conducts tours of the Museum and Interpretive Center, says she feels that God led her back to her “Roots” in 2006 in order to assist the museum staff with the preservation of Alex Haley’s legacy.
“Initially, I came back to Lauderdale County to care for my aging mother. Ironically, in 2006, the same year I moved back, the Site Manager for the Alex Haley Museum, Fred Montgomery, passed away after 20 years of dedication. His passing created an opening at the museum,” says Johnson.
Montgomery, known as one of Alex’s best friends, was also the first African-American mayor of Henning, serving three terms.
Last month marked the 35th annual commemoration of “Roots;” the novel turned mini-series in 1977. In honor of the commemoration, Oprah Winfrey hosted an original cast reunion, which aired January 16 on the Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN).
Friday will mark the 20th annual commemoration of Alex Haley’s death.
And it is obvious that the high-spirited, West African “Roots” of Haley did not ultimately die with him in 1992; it is obvious because Ms. Beverly and Mrs. Magnolia both possess the same spirit that has most certainly been passed down from generation to generation, originating with Kunta Kinte.
Beverly, a former AT&T executive, moved back to Ripley after residing in Atlanta for more than 20 years.
Mrs. Magnolia, Beverly’s mother, is a former school teacher for the Lauderdale County School System and is magnificently “getting around” at almost 90 years of age.
Mrs. Magnolia used only a cane to walk from the museum to Haley’s boyhood home.
“If you walk up there, I’ll bring the car around and take you back to the museum,” said Beverly to her mother, during the tour. When the time came to go back to the museum, Beverly didn’t have to get the car. Mrs. Magnolia walked back to the museum, briskly, with “pep in her step,” thus proving that the proud Kinte spirit lives on and the bloodline is absolutely undeniable!
What would Kunta Kinte say if he knew his grandson would become a world renowned cock fighter, and his grandson’s great-great-grandson would become a world renowned, Pulitzer Prize-winning author? What if Kunta Kinte knew that his grandson’s great granddaughter would go on to teach both Caucasian and Afrcian-American children alike in an  integrated school system for more than 30 years, when during Kinte’s time, it was illegal for slaves to learn to read. How do you think Kunta Kinte would feel if he knew his grandson’s great-great-granddaughter would become an established communications executive in Atlanta, Georgia and has now come back to her “Roots” in order to help keep the Kinte legacy alive?
Kunta Kinte, I believe, would be even more proud of his descendants than his descendants are of their “Roots!”
Lauderdale County is forever humbled and gracious to have been blessed to share a home with one of the greatest authors in the world, Alexander Murray Palmer Haley.
The realities of slavery can never be ignored or denied; they are without a doubt, the “Roots” of every African, every American, every African-American, every European, and well … every single human being on the face of this earth; Alex Haley’s “Roots” are not just his own. Alex Haley’s “Roots” are the “Roots” of the nations!

WCP 2.07.12

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