Alex Haley Collection

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Reference code

US TxAM-C C000012

Level of description



Alex Haley Collection


  • 1949-1965, 1967, 1991 (Creation)


1 box

Name of creator

Biographical history

Alex Murray Palmer Haley was born August 11, 1921, in Ithaca, New York, and reared in the small town of Henning, Tennessee. He was the oldest of three sons born to Bertha George Palmer and Simon Alexander Haley. When he was born, both parents were in their first year of graduate school, Bertha at the Ithaca Conservatory of Music, and Simon at Cornell University. They took the young Alex to Henning, where he grew up under the influence of women who inspired his search for his past. He remembers listening for hours as his family reminisced about an African ancestor who refused to respond to the slave name "Toby." "They said anytime any of the other slaves called him that, he would strenuously rebuff them, declaring that his name was 'Kin-tay.'" These initial stories would serve as the basis from which the Roots saga grew.

Not a stellar student in high school, Haley graduated with a C average at the age of fifteen. He then entered Alcorn A & M College in Lorman, Mississippi. After a short period, he transferred to Elizabeth City State Teachers College in North Carolina, from which he withdrew at age seventeen.

His experiences after college contributed directly to his growth as a writer. In 1939 he enlisted in the U.S. Coast Guard as a mess boy. To alleviate the boredom he experienced while cruising in the southwestern Pacific aboard an ammunition ship, he began writing. His first venture included writing love letters for his shipmates. He expanded his range with articles that he submitted to several American magazines. A series of rejection slips followed before his first article was accepted for publication by This Week, a syndicated Sunday newspaper supplement.

When Haley retired from the coast guard at the age of thirty-seven, he had attained the position of the chief journalist. Although he had dutifully served twenty years in the coast guard, he was not permitted to collect his pension checks--those were given as child support to Nannie Branch, whom he had married in 1941. They had two children, William Alexander, and Lydia Ann. They were separated for several years before getting divorced in 1964, the year he married Juliette Collins, whom he subsequently divorced; they had one child, Cynthia Gertrude.

Determined to continue his avid interest in writing, Haley moved into a basement apartment in New York City's Greenwich Village where, as a freelance writer, he lived a penurious existence. He was in debt and saw no brightness in his immediate future: "I owed everyone. One day a friend called with a Civil Service job that paid $6000 per year. I turned it down. I wanted to make it writing. My friend banged the phone down. I owed him too. I took psychic inventory. I looked in the cupboard, and there were two cans of sardines, marked two for 21 cents. I had 18 cents in a sack and I said to myself that I'd keep them." As a reminder of what he had to endure to get to where he is today, Haley framed the coins and cans and displays them in his private library; he calls them a symbol of his "determination to be independent," and vows that they will always be on the wall.

Haley's life soon took a turn for the better. The day after taking inventory of his circumstances, Haley received a check for an article he had written. This small reward fell short of the recognition he desired, but it did presage the beginning of assignments from more and more magazines, one of which was Reader's Digest, where he later published the first excerpts from Roots.

From the Dictionary of Literary Biography-a Thompson/Gale Database

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Scope and content

This collection consists of one box of material that includes heavily edited and complete manuscript pages from the Autobiography of Malcolm X, his writings on Mahalia Jackson, Wilma Rudolph, the story Queenie, a follow-up to Roots, and other writings. Also included are his notes regarding the re-run of the mini-series Roots. He mentions a meeting he had with Warren Beatty where they discussed Roots. The notes are titled "Re: Roots Re-Run for TV Guide. Between the Covers acquired the collection from a bookseller who bought it directly from the estate of Virginia Hannon. A group of early letters from Alex Haley it's seven letters sent between 1949-1954 (one from 1967) to close family friend, Virginia Hannon. The letters present Haley, then a journalist in the Coast Guard, trying to get his writing career started and relating thoughts about his working habits, carious siblings, and plans for the future. All letters are written light, optimistic, and sometimes flirtatious style. Accompanying them are several related photographs, including one of Hannon in uniform, and a copy of Haley's posthumous novel Queen inscribed to her by his brother, George.

The July 2015 addendum includes an archive of seven Typed Letters Signed from Alex Haley sent between 1949-1954 (with one from 1967) to a close family friend, along with related photographs and the first edition of Queen Inscribed by his brother George Haley. The letters are overall near fine with typical folds from being mailing and light toning, with their original mailing envelopes that show wear including are nick, tears, and chip, but all are present; the photos are fine. The book is fine in a fine dustwrapper.

The letters, which are signed both as "Alex" and "Palmer," his middle name, were written to Virginia Hannon, a woman who taught Alex Haley French at Alcorn College before he left to join the Coast Guard. The letters begin after he's become a journalist writing for Coast Guard Magazine, and it seems, after an absence from Hannon. The letters are very familiar and playful with references to her French class, updates on his brothers George and Julius, and although married, some flirtatious comments about her breasts, "they were not as you say, spinsterly," and his faraway demeanor in class, "believe me, love, I was not, when you observed me, thinking about any damned touchdowns." There is also lots of talk about Haley's writing career. The early letters from 1949 included his thoughts on his drive to be a writer: "I'm trying pretty hard and have thus far had some minor successes," as well as his bad habits: "I'm essentially lazy, but I love to write once I get started." It's during an extended hospital stay for the treatment of a pilonidal cyst in 1953 that he seems to really make headway: "I never had so much time on end to write in my life. I have to stand up to type, to be sure, but - boy, am I turning out the words! Things I've wanted to work on for ages." In a letter the next year he excitedly describes what was his first big career break: "The prime accomplishment to date, a milestone in my life, I guess, was the sale two weeks ago, of 'The Harlem that Nobody Knows,' a 4,000-word piece, to Reader's Digest ... As a result, I, last week, got taken in the stable of Ruth Aley, probably one of the top 5 literary agents in the country. I am working like a bastard, to put it bluntly." The job led to a series of articles in the magazine and an assignment with Playboy interviewing many of the most important African-Americans of the day. The final letter from 1967 takes the form of two short but sweet holograph notes to Hannon written on the margins of a form letter and a photocopied travel article. They show a busy, successful writer still trying to keep in touch with an old friend.

The letters are accompanied by a black and white photograph of a young Hannon in a military uniform (possibly Red Cross), along with two later color photos of George with Wynelle [Hannon's sister] and George with President Bill Clinton. Plus, there is a copy of Haley's book Queen, published posthumously, and warmly Inscribed by George: "To my dear sister, Virginia Rose Hannon With love, respect and appreciation Your brother George Haley - and all the rest of the Haley Family 12 June 1993." An interesting and intimate collection of early correspondence from one of the most influential African-American writers of the 20th Century.

System of arrangement

The original collection was arranged into the first three series followed by an addendum in July 2015 creating the fourth series.

Series 1, Serials
Series 2, Books
Series 3, Newspapers
Series 4, Letters, photos and other materials from and to Virginia Hannon

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  • English

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Archivist's note

© Copyright 2019 Cushing Library. All rights reserved.

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