The “Roots” of Genealogy at the National Archives

February is African American History Month. Visit the National Archives website for more information on our resources related to African American History.

The National Archives and Records Service in 1977
Alex Haley looking at the North Carolina census during his 1977 visit to the National Archives. (National Archives and Records Service 1977 Annual Report, Records of the National Archives)

In 1964, writer and historian Alex Haley visited the National Archives to research his family history. Looking in the 1870 census records for Alamance County, NC, he was able to confirm some details he heard through his family oral histories. This set him on a 13-year journey to find his family’s origins in Africa.

From his research he published the book Roots: The Saga of an American Family in 1976. The novel is based on the lives of six generations, starting with perhaps the most well-known character, Kunta Kinte, who was captured in Gambia and brought to America to be sold into slavery. 

The book became a best seller and the following year was adapted into an extremely popular television miniseries that sparked a national interest in genealogy.

Roots’s popularity had serious implications for the National Archives and our facilities around the country. Since we hold many of the nation’s documents for genealogical research, including census schedules, ships’ passenger arrival lists, and military service records, we became the place to go to research family history.

The increased interest resulted in an unprecedented demand for our resources. In 1977, the Microfilm Reading Room in National Archives Building in Washington, DC, had wait lines for the first time in our history. And the volume of reference letters increased exponentially, with a high of 7,000 letters in just one week!

(National Archives and Records Service Newsletter, May 1977, Records of the National Archives)

It also increased the number of African American visitors to the National Archives.

At the end of 1977, Haley revisited the National Archives, this time with a film crew to make a television documentary to be broadcast on the first anniversary of the airing of Roots. He ordered copies of that census page to give to the Roots cast, and Archives staff and other researchers ordered their own copies and lined up to have Haley sign them.

Pages from NARS Newsletter, 1977 - 11
(National Archives and Records Service Newsletter, November 1977, Records of the National Archives)

Although historians and scholars later questioned the authenticity of some of the story lines in the book, Roots is nonetheless credited as sparking a nationwide interest in family history and making the National Archives a premier source for genealogy research in the United States.

Read more in Alan Walker’s Rediscovering Black History blog post, “A Phenomenon Called “Roots,” 1977.”

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