We Tree’s Weekly Genealogy Prompt #27 asks us to visit the graves of local celebrities and talk about their lives. I’ll do a small twist on this which is that the celebrity is not in my local area, but is in the local area I am researching.
My maternal ancestors are from a rural, Southwestern county in Tennessee called Hardin County that most folks haven’t heard of unless they’re from there or have been following my post. Many of my family members lived in a town called Hooker’s Bend, which is fodder enough for another post, but Hardin County’s largest city is Savannah (you didn’t know there was one in Tennessee, did you?) Well, as the title of my post exposes, Alex Haley (the author of Roots) is Savannah’s biggest celebrity and he plays a prominent role in the tourism brochures for the area.
Alex Haley grew up in Hening, Tennessee, which is actually several counties over in Lauderdale County. But the reason Alex is Hardin County royalty is that his grandparents were prominent and well-known Savannah citizens from the end of the 19th through the early 20th century. They were Alec/Alex Haley and his wife Queen. They’re also (stated with utter pride) in my family. (His name is found in records written both ways, but I will call him “Alec” in this post to differentiate between him and his grandson.)
The Holts (my grandfather’s surname) are one of my major Hardin County lines and they intermarried with Haleys in two places on my tree. This is sorta confusing, but I’ll give it a shot: my great-great-aunt, Madelina Holt, married Abner Haley. Abner was one of Alec and Queen’s sons. Their other son, Simon, was Alex Haley’s father. Another Holt ancestor married Julia Haley, who was the daughter of Abner Haley. So there are Holts and Haleys all over the place.
Let me tell you a little bit more about Alec and his wife Queen, because they were a fascinating couple. Alec’s fame was mostly because he operated the ferry that took people across the Tennessee river to the city of Savannah when that was the quickest way to travel if your horse took too long. So he knew just about everybody in town, white or black. One year (I can’t remember what year) he saved a white woman who almost drowned, so after that, he was vaulted to forever sit amongst the echelons of “most beloved” colored folk (this incident was written in the local newspaper).
The Cherrys were one of the wealthiest families in Hardin County from the early-mid 1800s, and they owned what came to be known as the Cherry Mansion. The Cherry Mansion sits right on the side of the Tennessee river and was where Alec Haley’s ferry picked up passengers to go “‘cross the river”. His (mulatto) wife Queen worked in the Cherry mansion. Their house was about 100 yards from the Cherry Mansion. So Alec drove the ferry and his wife worked for one of the richest white families in the area. The Cherry Mansion (which still stands and is a tourist attraction) was so grand that when General Grant brought the Civil War through Hardin County for the Battle of Shiloh, he camped out at the Cherry Mansion. Much of this is covered in the book and movie.
When Roots and Queen shot Alex Haley to fame, there was a rush of visitors to Savannah, and people sought out elderly folks, both white and black, to ask them their memories of the couple. This created a positively rich record of them passed down via oral history, in addition to the wonderful book written by Alex. All kinds of neat details emerged, like the fact that people got baptized down at the river. One woman talked about when the circus came to town, how the elephants would swim across the river. Alec was described as a hard-working, smart, honest man who didn’t like “no ‘ficety kids.” Queen was a tiny woman, who claimed Captain Jackson was her father her entire life (she came from Alabama). Queen’s “mental spells” were the stuff of legend–everyone knew of her time spent in the mental hospital at Bolivar. Her spells “made an indelible impression on everybody.” One elder claims, “Miss Queen had fits, but she told us she acted that way to get what she wanted!” Others agreed about how smart she was and how they loved to hear her witty sayings: talking once about a girl’s dress being too short, Queen suggested she put a “condition” around the bottom of it–meaning a ruffle;) Queen’s spectacular way with gardening was noted: “She was crazy about flowers and her yard was beautiful. She had elephant ear plants all over the place.” Stories like these are the kind I live for in genealogy.
As a genealogist, I have enjoyed tracking this family through the census. By 1930, Abner and Madelina Holt Haley migrated to Detroit, part of the Great Migration of African-Americans to the North to find better employment and escape the hardships of the South. Last summer, I joyfully got to meet several of my Haley ancestors who live outside Detroit, in a township called Inkster. We exchanged pictures and information about our shared Tennessee roots.
I see my cousin Chris Haley much more often since he’s also here in Maryland and does alot of genealogy-related activities. Alex Haley is his uncle and he also is affiliated with the Kunte Kinte-Alex Haley Foundation. He keeps the Roots message alive in his speaking engagements and reminds us all of the wonderful gift Alex Haley left ALL genealogists. In this picture, we were at the FGS Conference in Philadelphia last year.
I’ll end with a photo of Alec Haley’s grave down in Savannah: