Longform

THE ANGUISH OF ALEX HALEY'S WIDOWWITH HER HUSBAND'S LITERARY LEGACY DISPERSED, SHE'S LOCKED IN A BITTER PROBATE BATTLE

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This is how George sees it: When Alex Haley died, he owned ten pieces of Tennessee real estate. All of the properties were mortgaged. The real estate included the 127- acre "farm" in Norris, two condos in Knoxville, a couple of houses in Clinton, some property in Henning.

It turned out that most of the properties were about to be foreclosed on.
In addition Alex Haley owed more than $100,000 in personal debts.
In all, the debts approached about $2 million, says Alex's son, William.

So George decided to sell off Alex's literary legacy, as well as his personal possessions. He says he "would rather not have done it," but he needed to pay the bills, preserve the real estate holdings, protect the estate from even greater debt if the properties are foreclosed on. As George explains it, the estate would have to pay hefty fees on any property that is foreclosed on.

If the real estate is preserved, it can be sold off later and the proceeds will go to the beneficiaries of Alex's will, he says. As taught by his father, George is simply providing for his own family members.

He does not feel he has decimated a national cultural treasure. "I can sleep at night," says Alex Haley's brother.

It is more than ironic that the apparent patriarch of the very family that symbolizes continuity and a sense of pride for so many African Americans would end up destroying a singular writer's literary legacy.

Hundreds of people attended the three-day auction of Alex Haley's personal possessions and working manuscripts. The literary material, including notes, manuscripts and research items from both Roots and The Autobiography of Malcolm X, was laid out on tables in the conference center at the University of Tennessee. Buyers bid via special telephones.

When My Haley viewed the conference-center tables stacked with materials she had worked on, she became physically ill. "George will have to answer to God for this," she says.

She did not attend the auction of Alex's personal things at the farm. She could not bear to see his Pulitzer Prize auctioned off.

John Rice Irwin did visit the farm. He was shocked. "It was like watching the second death of Alex," he says. The furniture was sold, the paintings, the antiques, the memorabilia, the awards. But what Irwin remembers most is an old leather suitcase with the initials "A H" that lay on the ground, empty, half-open. It was a suitcase Alex Haley had taken around the world; it was a symbol of his life on the road.

To John Rice Irwin, to treat Alex's suitcase thus was a desecration.
In the end, the auction netted about $800,000, says Paul Coleman, the estate's attorney. If Alex had known the documents were worth so much, Coleman jokes, he would have sold them himself and had another party.

Curators of black museums do not value crude jokes about the scattering of Roots and Malcolm X materials.

Roots was a monumentally important book because it ushered in "a new body of scholarship that looks at enslaved people as subjects, not objects, and recognizes them as agents of history and culture," explains Howard Dodson, director of the Schomburg Center, a New York institute that specializes in African-American culture. It also prompted millions of Americans to look at their "personal histories and ethnic and racial traditions."

Once Alex Haley demonstrated that he could trace his family roots, says Dodson, "others who had been afraid of going too far back because of the embarrassment and shame that many African Americans felt over slavery got the courage" to look into their pasts.

The Autobiography of Malcolm X, which Alex Haley himself preferred over Roots, told the story of a leader, considered by many to be as pivotal in African-American history as his contemporary, Martin Luther King Jr. The book "has been and will remain a classic text," says Dodson. "But again, it is more than that. If offers a sense of the possible. With Malcolm's life, you're able to see no matter how low you go, if you apply yourself, you can rise again and reach unimagined heights. Malcolm transformed himself in prison, and this can be seen as a metaphor for people trapped in the streets today. The book had a tremendous impact on people across gender, class and racial lines."

Like many black institutions, the Schomburg could not afford to buy the entire literary legacy. And it would have been impossible, in any case, because of the way the auction was set up.

"His personal papers were not offered for sale as a complete entity, but rather were broken into lots that did not maintain the intellectual integrity of the whole," says Dodson. Because the auction was silent, only the auctioneer knows the names of purchasers. And he cannot divulge the buyers' names because of privacy laws.

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Terry Greene