On April 1, 1985, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Alexander Murray Palmer Haley was appointed adjunct professor of journalism and American studies in the College of Communication and Information. Haley won both a Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award for Roots. At the time of his appointment, he had been awarded 17 honorary doctorate degrees and had received more than three hundred special recognitions.
Roots was a blockbuster in US publishing history, being translated into 37 languages and selling in excess of eight million copies. When Roots was presented as a television miniseries in 1977, its seven-night run drew more than 130 million watchers—the greatest program audience in television history.
In 1977 the Commission for Blacks recommended awarding Haley an honorary doctorate degree as part of a visit by Haley to Knoxville College and the city of Knoxville. The Daily Beacon reported that Chancellor Jack Reese and Dean of Student Activities Phil Scheurer declined. Reese indicated that he did not want to establish a precedent of bestowing honorary degrees, and Scheurer said that the university does not award honorary doctorates “as a matter of policy.” At the Knoxville tribute, Chancellor Reese presented Haley with an award of merit and a pen and ink drawing by UT graduate student Bruce Corbin.
Haley was born in Ithaca, New York, and grew up in Henning, Tennessee. The eldest of three sons of a college professor father and a mother who taught grammar school, Haley finished high school at age 15. He attended college for two years before enlisting in the Coast Guard as a messboy. On ships at sea during World War II, Haley worked late into the night writing stories. For eight years editors rejected hundreds of his manuscripts before occasional ones began to be accepted. In 1952 the Coast Guard created a new rating for Haley—chief journalist. He retired from the military after 20 years and became a freelance writer.
He wrote his first book with Malcolm X, The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Published in 1965, it was selected among the 10 best American books of the 1960s. His magazine articles—many for Playboy—showcased headline-making personalities.
As a member of the UT community, he gave lectures, taught classes, and assisted many students. He was a cochair of Governor Lamar Alexander’s Homecoming ’86 and agreed to produce a bicentennial history for Tennessee, telling the stories of representative Tennessee residents. He was well into the project at the time of his death. A scaled-down version, Tennessee: A Folk History, was published for Tennessee’s bicentennial.
In 1990 Haley promised his papers to UT, and the transfer of some 60 feet of materials—five drafts of Roots, cassettes of dictation, photocopies, correspondence, and trial material from the two lawsuits brought against Haley in connection with Roots—were transferred to UT’s Special Collections Library on January 26, 1991. A stipulation was attached to the gift—the papers were to remain sealed until Haley’s death. In order to be sure the papers were not used until then, they were not cataloged.
At the three-day estate auction (held partially in the UT Conference Center) to pay a $1 million debt owed on his Norris farm, UT Special Collections bid on a variety of research items to add to its holdings. UT acquired two unpublished articles on Malcom X, scripts, manuscripts, address books from 1950 to the 1980s, eight volumes of Haley’s personal diary, letters signed by Haley, photos of Haley, and blueprint surveys of his farm. The UT Library’s invoice was over $10,000, but all the money used to acquire the items was donated by friends of Haley who knew he wanted UT to have his papers. Haley explained his donation in a letter published in the Library Development Review: “It’s because libraries and librarians have done so much for me in the past that I am happy to do what I can for them now. . . . Now they’re not just my private works and recollections, but a part of the fabric of our state to eventually be shared with other researchers, writers, explorers, and dreamers.”
The Alex Haley Collection was cataloged, and the Haley Collection was officially opened to the public on February 23, 1993. The African Student Association placed a memorial tree and plaque in Circle Park, and the 1993 senior class gift to the university was a bust of Alex Haley that was sculpted by Jim Gray. The bust is in the Jack E. Reese Galleria of the Hodges Library.
Haley was buried on February 15, 1992, in his childhood home of Henning, Tennessee, following a funeral attended by more than 2,500 at the Greenwood CME Church in Memphis. A memorial service, at which 15 of Haley’s friends and associates spoke, was held at Thompson-Boling Arena, attended by more than four hundred. Joyce Carol Thomas, then associate professor of English at UT, said, “Alex, who was most happy at sea, is at sea with the angels. . . . Alex Haley, 1992 to eternity, storyteller to the angels.”