By Patrick Sawer
DNA tests have proved that Alex Haley – the black American author whose book Roots traced his family origins from the slave plantations of the US back to Africa – was of Scottish ancestry.
The tests have established that Haley – whose work is credited with helping transform the self-image of millions of black Americans – is directly descended from a Scottish paternal bloodline.
The findings came after a sample of DNA from Haley’s nephew Chris Haley matched that of his distant cousin June Baff-Black, who lives in Wales and whose shared lineage starts in 17th century Scotland.
Until recently, Chris Haley had only word of mouth family history to show that his great, great-grandfather had been born of an African slave mother and white Scottish father, both of whom lived and worked on a slave plantation in the US.
The findings, by the website Ancestry.co.uk, are the first scientific confirmation of Alex Haley’s own research in which he traced his ancestry back to William Baugh (a variation of Baff) – an overseer of an Alabama slave plantation – who was thought to have fathered a child with a female slave, called Sabrina, or “Viney”.
Their son, named Alec, is thought to have been born between 1850 and 1860.
Alex Haley, who died in 1992, traced this side of his family history in his book Queen, which followed the biographical novel ‘Roots: the Saga of an American Family’.
He was unable to fully prove his research by traditional genealogical methods using birth, marriage and death certificates and parish records, as his ancestors were African-American slaves and so very little documentation about them existed. Since many female slaves were raped by their owners there was frequently no record of the true father.
Instead Haley relied on the oral histories handed down from generation to generation as his primary source of ancestral information.
Chris Haley, from Washington DC, was introduced to Ms Baff-Black, who lives in South Wales, for the first time on Saturday at the Who Do You Think You Are? LIVE event at the Olympia National Hall in west London.
Mrs Baff-Black, 49, a local government officer, – who was inspired to take a DNA test after seeing the British athlete Colin Jackson do the same thing in the BBC ancestry series Who Do You Think You Are? – said: “I knew about Alex Haley and his book.
“It might even have been what gave my parents their interest in genealogy. But of course I had no idea I was linked in some way to his ancestors. It’s amazing to think we’re connected in this way.
“Chris and I have got so much in common – from what we like to the way we write and the fact we both love theatre.”
Mr Haley, 46, an actor and slavery historian, said: “I wish Alex had had DNA technology at his disposal. There has been a lot of controversy about his use of our oral history and these findings confirm what he wrote in Queens.
“He would have been thrilled that June and I have met. He always used to say the world is like salad bowl with lots of different ingredients.
“This shows we are really more similar than we believe, whether we are black or white, and we should put aside our superficial differences and focus on what we are as human beings.”
The phenomenal success of Haley’s novel Roots, and the television drama on which it was based, led to a world wide interest in genealogy, particularly among African-Americans, many of whom felt their slave backgrounds had robbed them of their rightful history and identity.
It was also a surprise hit in Britain, where Haley’s story gave many black youngsters a new pride about their own roots and sense of belonging.
DNA testing is a relatively new technology for genealogists, allowing them to trace the paternal or maternal line by studying either the ‘Y-chromosome’, which is passed from father to son, or ‘mitochondrial DNA’, which is passed from mother to daughter.
The DNA service from Ancestry.co.uk compares the results from people with others who have carried out the same test, identifying possible matches from around the world.
Since DNA mutates at a relatively steady rate, the test can indicate how long ago two genetically-matched cousins shared a common ancestor, allowing them to get in touch and compare more detailed family tree information.
In this case Ms Baff-Black had submitted a cheek swab sample from her father to represent her paternal ancestral bloodline.
Olivier van Calster, managing director of Ancestry.co.uk, said: “As Alex Haley knew only too well, at its core, any family history is a combination of established facts and reasonable assumptions.
“With science such as DNA becoming increasingly popular for use in furthering family history, it is exciting to see many of those reasonable assumptions – even 300 year old ones – becoming established as facts.
“This is a high profile example of what a simple cheek swab can achieve as DNA testing opens up channels that traditional research cannot reach, allowing the man on the street to make use of science to reach back into the past and discover ancestry that may have been lost for centuries.”