'Roots' run deep for Haley

October 10, 2005

Harvest Funded Project Brings William Haley to Discuss Ancestry and Behaviors

Martinsville Bulletin

William A. "Bill" Haley wants people to write down their own "Roots."

Haley is the son of the late Alex Haley, author of "Roots," which traced his ancestry back to Africa and covered seven American generations.

In a visit to Martinsville on Sunday, Bill Haley urged local residents to write their own stories, and those of their families, to preserve their heritage.

"Don't write dry facts," said Haley, of Beaufort, N.C. "Take the stories that are in your family. You don't have to validate them. Just write what they said. Put it down."

He spoke to about 35 people at the Fayette Area Historical Initiative (FAHI) offices on Fayette Street. He talked about the importance of tracing genealogy and saving family stories and also about race relations, a subject he lectured on for 35 years while he served in the military.

The two subjects often merged in his remarks.

For instance, Haley told the story of his grandfather, Simon Alexander Haley, who attended A&T College while working seven jobs, although he worried that he could keep up that pace. One summer around 1917, he got a job as a sleeping car porter on a train.

It was a good job that he was able to get, Haley said, because he was a light-skinned black. His father and mother both were half white, his grandson said.

One night on the train, a passenger asked Simon Haley to bring him some heated milk. Haley did so, and then the passenger talked with him at length.

When Haley returned to school at the end of the summer, the college president summoned him. It turned out the passenger on the train was R.S.M. Boyce, president of Boyce Publishing in Chicago, and he had sent A&T a check to cover two years of tuition, books and expenses for Haley.

Haley graduated with honors and went on to get a master's degree from Cornell University, his grandson said. "It started the legacy of us trying to be professionals," Bill Haley said.

For his part, Haley has a bachelor's degree in business management and a master's degree in human relations and business. He lectured at the military's Defense Race Relations Institute.

Haley described the work as being "change agents ... we encouraged discussion on cooperation."

"At the beginning, we thought we were fighting a losing battle" to improve race relations, he said. And while discrimination remains today, he said relations are improving, especially in the treatment of people and exposure of the issue.

Haley described what he called "pro-racist" behavior, which is the theory that all white people are racist when they do not think about it, just as all men are chauvinists when they do not think about.

That puts people in "predetermined places" and often is reinforced by accommodating behavior, he said. Sometimes, the target of such discrimination then practices it on others, he added.

That cycle can be stopped, Haley said, by "recognizing that you're doing it" and by not accepting it. "Tell them it is inappropriate," he said.

For example, he said often a white woman will get in front of a black man in line in a store, as if the man was not there. "Say 'Excuse me. I was here first.' She might be offended but she'll think about it the next time," he said.

Haley also found racism when he lectured bankers. There was a world of difference between the way a black businessman and a white businessman were treated by financial institutions, he said.

"It's not conscious on the part of the professional, but it's bad business," Haley said, adding that now the Community Relations Act requires that institutions lend to minorities based on their percentages in the community.

While he said, "I don't believe people are inherently racist," Haley also said color cannot be ignored.

"You can't wash it off," he said.

Data has found a higher number of cases of discrimination against blacks -- and especially those with darker skin, he said. "It's the same in Africa. It's part of a societal thing," he added.

Now retired, Haley does some public speaking and is writing two books, one on pro-racism and one on "Maybe I'm Just Like My Father," about a family's influence on an individual and how a person can break away from that influence.

Haley's talk was arranged by FAHI Director Linda Dillard. Haley runs the Alex Haley Museum in Annapolis, Md., in honor of his father, and while attending the Carolina Pinnacle Studios film festival in Yanceyville, N.C., last week, he learned about FAHI's exhibits and agreed to meet members on Sunday.


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