More than 230 years after his ancestor came to Annapolis in slave chains, "Roots" author Alex Haley got a long-planned tribute yesterday with the unveiling of a statue that shows him reading his family's story to children.
Haley's Pulitzer Prize-winning book and television miniseries helped popularize black history and fueled the nation's growing passion for genealogy. He died in 1992 and never lived in Annapolis, yet he has been embraced as an honorary son by a city fascinated with its own past and still grappling with racial divisions.
Haley was "the national storyteller," Leonard A. Blackshear, president of the Kunta Kinte-Alex Haley Foundation, told the crowd of 3,000 that gathered at the head of the City Dock yesterday.
" 'Roots' taught us that the strength of the human spirit to overcome challenges comes from maintaining strong family ties and keeping family heritage alive," Blackshear said.
It was a ceremony fraught with symbolism. In attendance were members of Haley's family and local descendants of the man who auctioned off their ancestor Kunta Kinte shortly after he emerged from a slave ship on the City Dock in 1767. John Amos, the actor who portrayed the adult Kunta Kinte in the miniseries, was brought to the City Dock dais by boat, in an echo of that original trip.
Haley, a veteran journalist, grew up hearing his grandmother in Tennessee tell stories of an ancestor who had been kidnapped from his home in northwest Africa and brought to a place she called "Napolis."
In the 1960s, he began researching his family history and learned that the place she spoke of was Maryland's state capital. He found at the state archives some of the key documentation that went into "Roots."
The resulting book, a blend of fact and fiction, dramatized Kunta Kinte's passage from his home in Africa to his enslavement in Virginia, as well as the lives of his descendants and their journey from slavery to freedom in Alabama and Tennessee.
It was a smash hit upon its release in 1976, as was the miniseries the following year. And it immediately inspired millions of Americans, of all races, to start researching their own family trees.
"Roots" resonated especially in Annapolis, a city long fascinated with its Colonial past. The city has worked hard in recent years to raise awareness of its African American history: It is the home of the black surgeon who performed the first successful operation on a human heart, and of the state's first black public official.
African Americans make up about one-third of the population, generally comprising a lower-income segment in an increasingly wealthy community.
For several years in the late 1970s, city officials resisted attempts to recognize Kunta Kinte's arrival, fearing that a reminder of the slave trade would cast an ugly shadow on the city's quaint image. A plaque installed in 1981 was stolen by vandals claiming to be Ku Klux Klan members.
The bronze sculpture by noted artist Ed Dwight, of Denver, was funded by state and local government, as well as private donations.
Bettilee Covert, 66, brought her two young grandchildren to the ceremony to teach them about their past as African Americans. She said that much has improved since her childhood in Annapolis, which was then a segregated city. Yet she's watched the black middle-class neighborhood where she grew up decay into poverty.
"We can't improve our future," she said, "unless we know about our past."
CAPTION: Gov. Parris Glendening, William Haley, who is Alex Haley's son, and Leonard A. Blackshear, of the Kunta Kinte-Alex Haley Foundation, admire the statue of the "Roots" author after the unveiling in Annapolis.
CAPTION: Coast Guardsman Robert Rodriguez talks with Gary Smith, left, and Jansen Cooper.