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Posted on: January 31, 2022

Alex Haley Discovers His Roots in Spotsylvania

alex with judge waller

Every week in the month of February, the Spotsylvania County Museum is featuring notable historical figures who are from or have impacted Spotsylvania County to honor Black History Month. 

During the eight consecutive nights between January 23 and January 30, 1977, an estimated 140 million watchers tuned their televisions to ABC to watch the latest installment of Roots. That year, those 140 million watchers accounted for over half the United States population. Today Roots is still considered to be one of the most-watched miniseries in television history, but it broke barriers far beyond viewership. Many accredit Roots to being a catalyst in how slavery was depicted in American culture and shifted a “taboo” subject into one that sparked difficult conversations. It encouraged Americans from different cultural backgrounds to research the origins of their own family history, particularly for Black families whose genealogical documentation was limited to records kept by owners of the enslaved. In 1977 alone, the use of United States National Archives jumped 800%, spurred by readers and watchers of Roots who were inspired to discover their family’s stories to share with their future generations. 


Source: IMDB

The show was based on author Alex Haley’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, “Roots: The Saga of an American Family,” which centers around the life of Haley’s ancestor, Kunte Kinte, a Gambian man who was captured, enslaved, and bought by the Waller family in Spotsylvania. The novel was adapted into a television miniseries a year after its publication in 1976 and starred LeVar Burton as Kunte Kinte. 

Roots depicted the brutality, torture, and identity loss associated with slavery in America in a way that was more honest and raw than American history books, classrooms, and media had ever portrayed before. The show is believed to be the first mass-consumed media that carried the message: “American history does not exist without Black people.”

alex with judge wallerAlex Haley with Judge Nelson Waller at the Olde Mudd Tavern
November 10, 1977
Artifact: 2011.019.593

On November 10, 1977 almost a year after the airing of Roots, Alex Haley and LeVar Burton took a trip to Spotsylvania County to meet with county supervisors and the Waller family during the filming of the “Roots: A Second Look.” After the crew finished shooting for the day, Judge Nelson Waller and his wife, Frances, threw a dinner party held in Haley’s honor at the Olde Mudd Tavern, where he received a proclamation from county supervisors (Artifact 2011.019.484) thanking him for bringing nationwide interest to Spotsylvania. Upon presenting him the proclamation, Berkeley District Supervisor A. Miller Arritt III told Haley, “We’re often accused of dragging our feet at out meetings, but that week that ‘Roots’ was on, I’ve never seen us hustle through a meeting so fast.”

alex speaking at dinner

Alex Haley speaking at the Olde Mudd Tavern to County supervisors 
November 10, 1977
Artifact: 2011.019.590

Almost 200 years prior to Alex Haley and Judge Waller’s dinner at the Olde Mudd Tavern, their ancestors were entwined in a far different relationship. While it seemed as though much had changed in America since then, Haley urged supervisors to learn from Roots so that as a society, we could keep progressing forward and continuously strive for racial equality. 

Untitled design (12)The Free Lance-Star via Google News Archives:  November 11, 1977

After his short trip to Spotsylvania, Alex Haley received the NAACP’s Spingarn Medal in 1977. By the end of Haley’s life in 1992, he was the author of numerous novels, short stories, and articles, but Roots is still considered to be one of the most influential books of the modern era. Its legacy has had a lasting impact on the way society views American history and inspired a new generation of genealogists from diverse backgrounds who prior to Roots, thought the history of their ancestors was inaccessible. 

“Because of many of the distortions of the historical order there are many things not to be proud of. But they are in the past tense. Our job now is to see that they remain in the past tense and that their legacy does not live on.”  - Alex Haley

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