This is a fascinating story, involving genealogy, the late Alex Haley, his nephew Chris Haley, a family in Scotland, Megan Smolenyak, Roots Television, and Ancestry.co.uk. In brief, Alex Haley's roots and those of Chris Haley have now been traced back to... Scotland! This week the "family" had a reunion in London, and I was fortunate enough to be there to watch it happen. I even took pictures.
Alex Haley was well known for his book Roots, which became a very successful television mini-series. The book is based upon Alex Haley's maternal ancestry. Stories were handed down in that family from generation to generation – stories that later became the basis for the Roots story that described Haley's search for his roots in Africa.
Alex Haley didn't write much about his paternal ancestors. However, he later wrote Queen: The Story of an American Family. Queen is a partly factual historical novel which portrays the plight of the children of the plantation – the offspring of black slave women and their white masters, who rarely acknowledged the children who were not only their progeny but also legally their slaves.
While the book was fictional, the characters in the book were based on real people: Alex Haley's paternal family tree. The lady called "Queen" was actually Alex Haley's paternal grandmother. The novel recounts Queen's anguished early years as a slave girl, longing to know who her father was. She eventually found that her father was Alec Haley, and we now know where Alex Haley got his name: from his great-grandfather Alec Haley.
In the book, Alex Haley wrote:
Alex Haley was unable to finish writing "Queen" before he died, and it was completed by David Stevens. Haley also did not complete his studies of his paternal ancestry and did not know much about William Baugh.
Now let's jump forward a few years:
Chris Haley is a professional historian, archivist, and a serious genealogist. He has been researching branches of the Haley family tree that his famous uncle did not complete before his death. In fact, I interviewed Chris Haley on Roots Television in 2007. You can see that interview at http://blog.eogn.com/eastmans_online_genealogy/2007/08/interview-with-.html. In the description of that 1997 interview, I wrote, "His famous uncle only researched one-fourth of Chris' ancestry, so Chris has been working on the other three-fourths."
A few months later, Megan Smolenyak asked Chris Haley to take a DNA test, an option not available to his uncle only a few years earlier when the uncle was doing genealogy searches. You can watch Chris' reaction to the DNA test on Roots Television at http://www.rootstelevision.com/players/player_dna3.php?bctid=1243732346&bclid=1485323732.
Now let's fast-forward again to a week-and-a-half ago. Chris received an automated e-mail message, informing him of a match to another customer who had just submitted his DNA sample. A few e-mail messages flew back and forth, and Chris soon learned that a man in Scotland had identical DNA with Chris' sample (and therefore, it also had to match Alex Haley's DNA as well) except for one mutation. This means that Chris and the man in Scotland shared a common ancestor.
Megan Smolenyak again got involved and, in turn, she asked the folks at Ancestry.com and Ancestry.co.uk to help. (Megan is the Chief Family Historian at Ancestry.com and Ancestry.co.uk.) Together, they researched some of the Haley's paternal ancestry.
Now the best part of all is the fact that the Scottish man's name is Baff. While the spelling is different, the names "Baugh" and "Baff" are pronounced the same. The man's last name is the same as what Alex Haley wrote some years ago in Queen.
It seems that the man in Scotland had submitted DNA as a favor to his daughter. She is the genealogist in the family, having researched her family tree for the past three weeks. That is not a mis-print: she has been researching her family tree for THREE WEEKS!
She wanted to compare DNA but, as a female, she does not possess a Y-chromosome. She needed a close male relative to submit a sample for her. She asked her father to do so, and he swabbed his cheeks and sent in the sample. A few days later, voila! A match. The man in Scotland has the same DNA as the famous Haley family in America.
The Haley family legends turned out to be true: the paternal ancestor was probably named Baugh or Baff. (We are assuming a 99% chance of being named Baugh or Baff here; the man obviously shared male ancestry with the modern-day Baff.)
E-mail started flying back and forth across the Atlantic. Chris Haley corresponded with the man's daughter, June Baff Black. While born in Scotland, June now lives in Wales. The two decided to meet as soon as possible. Megan arranged many of the details, including coverage by the BBC. The "reunion" was held the following weekend at the Who Do You Think You Are? LIVE show in London. Chris obtained the first available airline ticket to London, and June jumped on the train, along with her husband and children.
By good fortune, I was in the hotel lobby this morning when the two families met for the first time. It was cute: they shook hands, and immediately both cousins started examining the other's face and hands, looking for visible similarities. They also quickly zeroed in on similar interests and hobbies, just as any two long-lost cousins would do. You can see a picture of the two on this newsletter's web site. I believe full coverage will be available on RootsTelevision.com within a few days as well.
It was a heart-warming moment.
The two families soon jumped into a waiting car and went to BBC Television to appear on the Saturday morning "BBC Breakfast Show," along with Dr. Nick Barratt, the genealogical consultant for the BBC television show Who Do You Think You Are? Other news services have since picked up the story and it has since appeared on television and in the printed press throughout the U.K.
I love it when a good story comes together, this time because of the hard work of number of people, including the two "cousins" as well as Megan Smolenyak, Roots Television, Ancestry.co.uk, FamilyTree DNA, and even the BBC.
A lot of work is left to be done. The DNA match occurred only one-and-a-half weeks ago. There is much paperwork left to be studied. Now that the two have a name confirmed and Chris Haley now has a country identified, the two are prepared to spend the next few months studying census records and all the other records that genealogists use. The goal is to find a paperwork trail that verifies the DNA, as well as vice-versa.
I am also fascinated by the deflation of a stereotype. Many of us think of American Blacks tracing their ancestry back to Africa, and that is certainly accurate for many of their ancestors. However, history also teaches us that many slaves had white ancestry, such as the case of overseer William Baugh and his relationship with a slave woman. Indeed, many of today's American Blacks do have white ancestry that will lead them back to the British Isles or to Europe. I am sure that Alex Haley never knew that his roots went back to Scotland as well as to Africa. Yet he knew about and wrote about his white ancestor, William Baugh. I don't think he would be surprised by this week's events.
The Haley family is not alone in having both white and black roots.