A Phenomenon Called “Roots,” 1977

Today’s blog was written by Alan Walker, Archivist at the National Archives at College Park, Maryland

From the moment our search room doors opened to the public in late 1936, family history was a big draw for the public. For the fiscal year ending June 30, 1938, nearly one quarter of the admission cards issued went to “students of genealogy.”


64-NA-324+Silence+in+the+Search+Room+-+Philadelphia+Inquirer,+Publicity,+8-12-42.JPG                                     64-NA-324 (investigators in Central Search Room, ca. 1940)

Coincident with this was a burgeoning interest in the African American experience in America. On its 75th anniversary, the Emancipation Proclamation went on display here.


The Washington Post, January 26, 1937(c)

Later that year, the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History held its annual meeting in Washington, DC.


The Washington Post, November 1, 1937(c)

Archivist James R. Mock attended, and discussed relevant records in the Archives’ custody:


RG 64, A1 8, file “Mock, James”                        Faculty photo, 1927 yearbook

His address would be published in the association’s Journal of Negro History in January 1938. Mock highlighted the records of Congress, various executive branch agencies, and some of the emergency agencies established during World War I, such as the Food Administration. Here is an excerpt:


Proceedings of the Annual Meeting of the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, October 31 – November 3, 1937

Ten years, and another world war later, archivist Paul Lewinson, in cooperation with the American Council of Learned Societies, compiled this guide to records of interest to the scholar:


64-NA-1-220  Paul Lewinson, 1951

Organized chronologically by time periods, with entries arranged by record group, the guide also included a section with records of particular interest to the genealogist:


But for those African Americans who wished to find out more about their ancestry, the way forward was fraught. Genealogical organizations like the Daughters of the American Revolution resisted integration.


The Washington Post, November 21, 1960(c)

But the desire to simply know more compelled many people forward – to question, demand, and discover.


The Washington Post, November 7, 1962(c)


The Washington Post, June 16, 1963(c)

American travelers guide to Negro monuments. –  Full View | HathiTrust Digital Library | 

Negroes+Left+Out+of+U.S.+History+Textbooks+-+Washington+Post,+Aug.+10,+1964.jpg                                                                                                 The Washington Post, August 10, 1964(c)

Negro+Heritage+Library+-+Washington+Post,+Nov.+16,+1965.jpg                                                                                   The Washington Post, November 16, 1965(c)

Children+Learn+their+African+Heritage+Through+Art+-+Washington+Post,+Aug.+22,+1966.jpg                                                The Washington Post, August 22, 1966(c)

In 1963, on the Emancipation Proclamation’s centennial, Attorney General Robert Kennedy came to the Archives and spoke of its legacy, and of still so more to be done.

64-NA-2154+Charles+Wesley+at+Emancipation+Proclamation+Centennial+Exhibit,+Jan.+4,+1963.jpg                                                                              64-NA-2154

Dr. Charles H. Wesley, President of Central State College, speaking at Emancipation Proclamation Centennial, January 4, 1963

And this notable observance, as well as the centennial of the Civil War, helped to spur more use of our records.



Jet, February 20, 1964

During this time, a writer named Alex Haley had started doing research at the National Archives. Like so many, he was motivated by tantalizing yet fragmentary family stories. On his many visits, he may have consulted this guide.


Haley made a successful living by interviewing notable figures, like Malcolm X.  Their interview sessions became a bestselling book.


Haley also interviewed George Lincoln Rockwell, the head of the American Nazi Party, for Playboy magazine.


This excerpt set the tone for the ensuing conversation.


1966 Playboy Interview : George Lincoln Rockwell; Alex Haley : Internet Archive

While Rockwell would be killed by a disgruntled former Party member the following year, Haley continued researching, writing, and sharing his experiences. During the Poor People’s Campaign on the Mall in the spring of 1968, photographer Jill Freedman was there to chronicle its daily rhythms.

Jill Freedman Discusses Her Photographs of the Poor People’s Campaign, 2008

Poor+People's+Campaign+-+NA+Issuance,+May+23,+1968+-+RG+64,+P+42                                                                RG 64, P 42

And Alex Haley was there, too.

Alex+Haley+at+Poor+People's+Campaign+-+Washington+Post,+June+6,+1968.jpg                                                                           The Washington Post, June 6, 1968(c)

“Resurrection City: The Dream, The Accomplishments,” Ebony, October 1968

And all the while, schools were adding more courses about genealogy and Negro history.             GW+Genealogy+and+Negro+Studies+Courses+-+Wash.+Post,+Sept.+25,+1968                                                                        The Washington Post, September 25, 1968(c)

College+Courses+on+Negro+History+Prove+Popular+-+Washington+Post,+Feb.+9,+1969.jpg      The Washington Post, February 9, 1969(c)

Robert+L.+Clarke+Hired+by+Archives+-+Jet,+Nov.+19,+1970,+p.+20                                                                                     Jet, November 19, 1970

With interest in Afro-American history burgeoning, the Archives’ Robert L. Clarke proposed a conference to discuss research sources among federal archives.

64-NA-5433+Robert+L.+Clarke+at+Afro-American+History+Conference,+June+1973.jpg                                                                                                                  64-NA-5433 Robert L. Clarke at Afro-American History Conference, June 4, 1973


Later Clarke compiled the participants’ essays into this volume:


Haley attended the conference, and spoke of his story:

64-NA-5436+Alex+Haley+at+Afro-American+Conference,+June+1973      Alex+Haley+Presentation+-+first+page+from+Clarke+book                        64-NA-5436

A few years later, he published another book.

Cover+of+Roots+-+Original+Edition.jpg                                                                                                           “A Black American’s Search for His Ancestral African Roots,” Ebony, August 1976

Roots quickly became a bestseller. And the effects reverbated.

New+Interest+in+Genealogy+-+Washington+Post,+Dec.+13,+1976                                                                             The Washington Post, December 11, 1976(c)

A TV miniseries was not long in coming.



TV+Guide,+Jan.+22-28,+1977+-+Alex+Haley+Story+-+page+1  TV+Guide,+Jan.+22-28,+1977+-+Alex+Haley+Story+-+page+2.jpg                      TV Guide, January 22-28, 1977

Airing on consecutive nights over that week, “Roots” took the country by storm. The Archives welcomed Haley and some of the cast for a preview.

Joan+Mondale+Greets+Roots+Stars+at+Archives+-+NARS+Newsletter,+Feb.+1977.jpg                                                            NARS Newsletter, February 1977

And the Archives saw a huge increase in reference service as a result.

James+Walker+on+TV+with+Alex+Haley+-+NARS+Newsletter,+Feb.+1977.jpg                                                                    NARS Newsletter, February 1977

Pile+of+Reference+Letters+from+Roots+Phenomenon+-+NARS+Newsletter,+May+1977.jpg                                          NARS Newsletter, May 1977

How+to+Trace+Your+Family+Tree+-+Ebony,+June+1977,+page+1                                                                                           “How to Trace Your Family Tree,” Ebony, June 1977

James+D.+Walker+-+Ebony,+June+1977,+p.+53                                                                                                      Ebony, June 1977, p. 53

Debra+Newman+Wears+Roots+T-Shirt,+NARS+Newsletter,+August+1977.jpg                                                                                    ARS Newsletter, August 1977

Number+of+Black+Researchers+Triples+at+Archives+-+Jet,+Aug.+4,+1977,+p.+57                                                                                                       Jet, August 4, 1977

Alex+Haley+and+Roots,+NARS+Newsletter,+Nov.+1977  Alex+Haley's+Ancestors+on+1870+Census+Record+-+NARS+Newsletter,+November+1977                  NARS Newsletter, November 1977

And the effects weren’t just felt in the U.S. A British publisher expanded its operations owing to the intense interest.

British+Peerage+Publisher+Expands+to+America+-+Washington+Post,+May+6,+1977.jpg                                                                                       The Washington Post, May 6, 1977(c)

But on this side of the pond, in a moment of powerful symbolism, the “Roots” phenomenon breached an elite bastion of (hitherto) white heritage.

First+Black+Member+of+the+DAR+-+Jet,+May+25,+1978                                                                                               Jet, May 25, 1978

On the 40th anniversary of the publication of Roots, this story explored its impact:
Everyone was talking about ‘Roots’ in 1977 — including Ronald Reagan – The Washington Post

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