Black History Month: Alex Haley

February is Black History Month.  We here at GVSHP are celebrating by highlighting different sites and locations of significance to African-American history in the Village.  A great source is our recently-released Civil Rights & Social Justice Map, which has more than twenty sites connected to African-American history and civil rights; click here to see them all.

One such little-known but incredibly important site is 92 Grove Street, where Pulitzer-Prize winning American author, Alex Haley had a writing studio during the 1960’s.  Probably best known for his books Roots: The Saga of an American Family and The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Haley rented a studio in the back of 92 Grove Street.  It was here that he conducted dozens of interviews with Malcolm X which were the foundation of that groundbreaking autobiography — Haley’s first book, and an enormous part of the legacy and perception of Malcolm X, more than a half century after his death (Malcolm X was assassinated fifty years ago yesterday at the Audubon Ballroom in Upper Manhattan).

92 Grove Street today. Courtesy of Google Maps.

Born in 1921 in Ithaca, NY, Alex Haley served in the Coast Guard for two decades before pursuing his career as a writer in New York City starting in 1959.  It was about this time that Americans were becoming increasingly aware of the Nation of Islam in America.  In 1960, Haley wrote an article on his interview with Elijah Muhammad, leader of the Nation of Islam from 1934 until his death in 1975, published in The Saturday Evening Post and entitled, “Mr. Muhammad Speaks.”  During this time, Haley also conducted a series of interviews for Playboy, which became known as “The Playboy Interviews,” which included Malcolm X.  Other people Haley interviewed in this series included Miles Davis, Martin Luther King, Jr., Leontyne Price, Sammy Davis, Jr., and Quincy Jones.  Haley was encouraged to pursue an autobiography of Malcolm X and according to Haley when he approached him about the project: “Malcolm X gave me a startled look when I asked him if he would tell his life story for publication. It was one of the few times I have ever seen him uncertain. “I will have to give a book a lot of thought,” he finally said. Two days later, he telephoned me to meet him again at the Black Muslim restaurant. He said, “I’ll agree. I think my life story may help people to appreciate better how Mr. Muhammad salvages black people. But I don’t want my motives for this misinterpreted by anybody — the Nation of Islam must get every penny that might come to me.'”*   Starting in 1963 Haley began over 50 interviews with Malcolm X over a 2-year period and to tell his whole life story, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, published in 1965.

Alex Haley. Courtesy of Bill Haley https://www.pri.org/programs/studio-360/american-icons-autobiography-malcolm-x

Haley’s next project would be the result of a decade worth of research and travel over three continents.  Roots: The Saga of an American Family, is a novel based on Haley’s family history which tells the story of his ancestors’ journey from Africa to America as slaves, and then their rise from slavery to freedom.  Published in 1976, the novel received a 1977 Special Citation Pulitzer Prize, caused a national sensation and sold millions of copies.  The book was adapted into a miniseries which was watched by 130 million viewers, shattering viewing records at that time.

Haley’s work inspired a wave of interest in geneaology and more importantly generated significant awareness of the horrors of slavery and its legacy in this country.  Haley died in 1992.

Some of the other incredible African-American history sites on the map include:

  • The former headquarters of the NAACP, where the iconic “A Man Was Lynched Yesterday” flag flew
  • The homes of James Baldwin and Lorraine Hansberry, where they wrote “Notes of a Native Son” and “Raisin in the Sun,” respectively
  • Café Society, the first integrated club in New York City, where Billie Holiday premiered the anti-lynching anthem “Strange Fruit”
  • The birthplace of Howard Bennett, the man who spearheaded the successful drive for a national Martin Luther King Jr. holiday
  • The New School, where W.E.B. DuBois taught the very first course on African-American history at a university
  • The LeRoi and Hettie Jones Residence, where the ‘Black Arts’ movement was centered in the 1950’s and 60’s
  • Cooper Union, where Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, and John Brown all railed against slavery
  • The Spring Street Presbyterian Church, one of the city’s very first integrated and abolitionist churches, on the site of what is now (ironically enough) the Trump SoHo.
  • The African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, one of New York’s first black churches and the site of historic celebrations of the ending of slavery in New York in 1827 and the passage of the 15th amendment granting the right to vote to all men in 1870
  • The Abyssinian Baptist Church, founded in part by Ethiopian immigrants as a breakaway from the segregated First Baptist church where blacks had to worship in a “slave loft,” and one of the first and to this day most prominent black churches in New York City
  • “Little Africa,” the heart of New York’s black community in the mid-19th century, centered around the tiny winding streets of Minetta Lane and Minetta Street
  • Sites of the 1863 “Draft Riots,” the largest civil disturbance in American history which resulted in the deaths of at least 119 people, mostly African-American, and resulted in approximately one-fifth of the city’s African-American population leaving (mostly for Brooklyn)

To view them all, and to see other sites connected to LGBT Civil rights history, the feminist movement, Hispanic and Latino history, immigrant rights, social justice movements, and notable opponents of anti-Semitism and the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, view the map here.

* https://genius.com/Alex-haley-epilogue-annotated

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Sarah Bean Apmann