ITHACA, NY – Even if you don’t know him by name, chances are you’re familiar with the work of Ithaca native Alex Haley.

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At the very least, you probably know of the pool named after him.

Last week, the New York Times ran a book review of a biography of Haley, but mistakenly labeled his birthplace as Tennessee. While Haley did spend his early years there, but he was born here in Ithaca and returned at age five. The Times did later print a correction.

So who was Alex Haley?

Well, maybe you’ve heard of a little book – or more likely, a hugely popular television miniseries – called Roots: The Saga of an American Family. Roots told the story of Kunta Kinte, a young west African man who is captured and sold into slavery.

Roots, the Pulitzer Prize-winning book, is considered one of the most important pieces of African American literature in the second half of the 20th century, according to the New York Times.

The miniseries, originally aired in 1977, had an even more profound impact. The series finale was the second most watched in television history with over 100 million viewers. The series was nominated for 37 Emmy awards, and won nine.

Haley also wrote The Autobiography of Malcolm X, based on an intensive series of interviews with the influential African American leader.

He also wrote for Playboy, conducting some of the magazines most vital interviews during his tenure, including interviews with jazz great Miles Davis, TV legend Johnny Carson, boxer Muhammad Ali. Most prominent was his interview with Martin Luther King Jr., the longest interview granted to any publication by the civil rights leader.

Some of Haley’s work faced criticism for plagiarism and historical inaccuracy in his later years, but Haley’s work remains a vital part of American literature.

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Michael Smith

Michael Smith reports on politics and local news for the Ithaca Voice. He can be reached via email at, by cell at (607) 229-0885, or via Google Voice at (518) 650-3639.