stories from 1888
onward tell the tale
There is a new temporary exhibit at the Tennessee River Museum showcasing glimpses of the lives of the Haley family in Hardin County.
Titled “A Queen on the Tennessee River,” the exhibit features snippets on the lives of three members of the Haley family – Alec, Queen and Simon.
The Haley family became known throughout the world thanks to Alex Haley’s novel “Roots: The Saga of an American Family,” published in 1976. Alex was Alec and Queen’s grandchild, and Simon’s son.
The novel draws from the history of the Haley family from the slave trade through the Reconstruction Era. The novel was on the New York Times bestseller list for four months, selling more than 6 million copies and winning both the National Book Award and a Pulitzer Prize.
When Alex’s novel was adapted for a television miniseries a year later, the series finale was the most-watched single episode in the history of U.S. television, a record that stood until it was broken by the series finale of “M*A*S*H,” in 1983.
The exhibit of Alex Haley’s immediate family includes photographs and copies of articles mentioning the family from the Courier newspaper from the late 1880s through World War I.
Lauren Whaley, museum liaison and curator of the exhibit, said the snapshots and features in the newspaper about the family aren’t only about the story of the Haley family.
“To us they’re legends, but seeing information about just a small portion of their lives walks you through struggles people went through at the time, such as the fact that Queen had lost a baby before her marriage to Alec,” Whaley said.
Several of the articles mention Alec’s profession as an operator of the ferry in Savannah. An 1888 story from the Courier relates how Alec rescued a bride and groom returning from their honeymoon. Their wagon went into the river as their driver was attempting to board the ferry.
There is also a letter Simon wrote home when he was stationed overseas during WWII that was published in the Courier.
“Through my research I was able to piece together that Simon’s father passed away while he was at war because the letter published had the date written as July 18, 1918, and Alex passed away in June,” Whaley shared.
While most of the exhibit focuses on Queen, Alec and Simon Haley, there is an actual copy of a Courier edition detailing author Alex Haley’s visit to Savannah in 1986.
Whaley said the exhibit highlights the importance of the river in Hardin County.
“The story of the Haley family is a story of the Tennessee River and its impact on our community. Queen wouldn’t have arrived here if it were not for the river, and Alec worked the ferry on the river, and their experiences show the vital part the river plays in our community, she said.
At the time of his death in 1992, Alex was writing “Queen: The Story of an American Family,” which was finished by David Stevens and then turned into a television miniseries in 1993.
The museum’s “A Queen on the Tennessee River,” coincides with the series’ 30th anniversary and will be at the museum until the end of August.
Whaley said, “It’s important to note that this exhibit is just a brief overview of the story of the Haley family. Their story is an important part of the county’s history and I’m grateful the museum is able to share some parts of their lives.”
There is also an important disclaimer included with the exhibit which reads, “Some of the articles contain negative language pertaining to African Americans. We have not changed them in their historical context. The perspectives found in these articles do not reflect the views help by the Tennessee River Museum, its board, or its staff.”
The Tennessee River Museum at 495 Main St. in Savannah is open Monday through Saturday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Sundays, 1 p.m. to 5 p.m.