Thursday, November 16, 2006

George ("Chicken George") Lea

George ("Chicken George") Lea

"Chicken" George, made famous in the Alex Haley novel Roots: The Saga of an American Family (1976), purportedly was born in Caswell County, North Carolina, the illegitimate son of slaveowner Tom Lea and his female slave Kizzy Kinte Waller, daughter of Kunta (Toby) Kinte and his wife Bell. For a synopsis of the novel go to Roots. Above is a photograph of Alex Haley.

However, the genealogical research done by Haley in support of his novel, the essential facts of which he claimed were true, has been severely criticized. To see some of this criticism go to Roots Revisited.

For example, an article by Elizabeth Shown Mills and Gary B. Mills in National Genealogical Society Quarterly (March 1984) states that Tom Lea, the slaveowner who Haley says fathered Kizzy's child "Chicken" George, did not own the other slaves that Haley says he owned. There are also other, chronological problems with the account of George's escape from his father's (Tom Lea) ownership.

Also recall that in the novel a John Waller of Spotsylvania County, Virginia, purchased Kunta Kinte at auction and was responsible for cutting off part of the slave's foot to discourage his running away. Mills and Mills show a connection that Haley missed between the Wallers of Virginia and the Leas of North Carolina—the Leas had come from the same corner of Spotsylvania County (the two families may have been related). Also, the Waller family of Virginia did own a crippled slave (recall the scene where "Toby" is maimed for his escape attempt), but it was not Toby. It was a man called Hoping [Hopping] George, who was owned by Colonel William Waller—father of brothers William and John Waller whom Haley believed to have owned Kunta Kinte. As "George" was a name common in Alex Haley's family, and Colonel William Waller also owned a slave named Isabell (Kinte's wife was supposedly named "Bell"), this might have been the true ancestor of Haley.

For a bibliography of critical articles on Roots, see National Genealogy Society Quarterly (December 2003).

Note the following from World Net Daily (1 July 2005):
Approaching 70 when "Roots" debuted, Harold Courlander was shocked to read it. For the previous 30 years or more, Courlander had been traveling the world collecting folk tales and writing about his findings.

In 1978, Courlander sued Haley in a U.S. District Court in New York for copyright infringement. The suit cited 81 passages that had been lifted from Courlander's "The African," as well as the plot and certain characters. Haley's defense fell apart when, during discovery, the plaintiff's lawyers found three quotes from "The African" among his typed notes, notes that he had apparently failed to destroy.

The last thing the judge wanted to do was to undermine a newly ascendant black hero. Midway through the trial, he counseled Haley and his attorneys that he would have to contemplate a perjury charge unless they settled with Courlander. They did just that to the tune of $650,000, or about $2 million by 2005 standards. In return, Courlander agreed to keep quiet about the suit, which he did until he died in 1996.

The media paid scant attention to the suit and even then failed to explore the real gist of the scandal: namely that the author of a "nonfiction" book plagiarized from a fictional one.

In the late 1970s, two leading genealogists, Gary Mills and Elizabeth Shown Mills, decided to follow up on Haley's work through the relevant archives in Virginia, North Carolina and Maryland. They found that Haley, like most amateur genealogists, made mistakes. But they found, too, that his transgressions went well beyond mere mistakes. "We expected ineptitude, but not subterfuge," observed Elizabeth, herself the editor of the National Genealogical Society Quarterly.

The records showed that in the pre-Civil War period, Haley got virtually everything wrong. In "Roots," for instance, Haley tells in great excited detail how he tracked down the very ship that Kunta Kinte had taken from the Gambia to 'Naplis, the Lord Ligonier in 1767, the very year that "the King's soldiers came" to the Gambia. In fact, as the Mills discovered, the man that Haley identifies as Kunta Kinte, a slave by the name of Toby in the possession of the John Waller family, could not have been Kunta Kinte or Haley's ancestor. Toby had been in America as early as 1762, five years before the Lord Ligonier arrived. Worse for Haley, Toby died eight years before his presumed daughter Kizzy was born.

Still, neither the lawsuit nor the unraveling of the genealogy dimmed Haley's star while he was alive.. The book and video remained a staple in history classes across America. The Pulitzer remained in his trophy case. And the awards and the money continued to roll in.

In 1993, a year after Haley's death, literary detective Philip Nobile did his best to blow the whistle on what he calls "one of the great literary hoaxes of modern times." In February of that year, he published "Uncovering Roots" in the influential alternative publication, the Village Voice. The article brought to a larger public the story of the Courlander suit and the Mills' genealogy. Nobile also revealed that Haley's editor at Playboy magazine, the very white and Jewish Murray Fisher, did much of the book's writing.

In the British Isles, the Nobile expose was a big story. It got serious coverage in all the major newspapers, and the BBC later made a documentary. The American cultural establishment, however, continued to turn its back on the story. The New York Times had exactly this to say about the controversy:

Two weeks ago, the charges about the authenticity of "Roots" and the integrity of Mr. Haley were raised anew in an investigative article by Philip Nobile in the Village Voice. Members of the Haley family have rebutted the accusations.

And that was that.

See Also:

Biography of Alex Haley

Roots Was a Fraud


  1. If Haley's narrative of his family history is fabricated--even inspired (granted through misappropriation) by another fictional work--I would consider this a minor offense, for it is something that happens more often then most want to realize in the publishing industry. The insinuation that his publisher wrote most of his famous work is also a common discredit to authors, one at least as old as Shakespeare.

    Thus such attacks on Haley's credibility only demonstrate the process for almost every writer and the eventual charges brought against a writer for this process. A writer relies on talented and insightful allies who can not only inspire, but proofread, critique, brainstorm, and, yes, reconstruct a draft into the writer's true vision. In regards to the accusation that Haley plagiarized "The African", this only reflects the rule that all professional writers and artists already know: "Amateurs borrow; Professionals Steal." Had Haley's accusers found two or three sentences from 'The African' in 'Roots' itself, then I would question his integrity and that of the work.

    So if we can assume I've argued the point that none of the evidence in this article truly undermines Haley's credibility as an author, that only leaves his credibility as a genealogist.

    To this, I'd like to be as brief as possible. The most interesting evidence brought to bear is that of historical inconsistencies in the book and -- as this article suggests -- the relevance of the book and the importance of its use in classrooms.

    To the latter argument, I simply say that any book, non-fictional, fictional, or hybrid, that teaches students the importance of family, family history, and identity, as well as giving an accurate narrative of America's other history, is important in any classroom. To tear down the book's integrity is to throw the baby out with the bath.

    In regards to the actual accuracy of his research, the evidence is compelling. Obviously the historical conflicts reveal the need for further research. If Haley's book has helped spur that research (for which there was little for African-Americans prior to 'Roots'), then I would call it the most relevant publication by an amateur genealogist to date.

    What I really am curious about, though, is something the article did not touch on and I wish it had, for better or worse. My memory of 'Roots' is that the family history was passed on as an oral tradition, and that Haley only tried to confirm the authenticity of his family's stories. If this is truly the case, then it seems that the research done by the Mills' confirms that the Waller's did own a slave named Toby, that there was a slave who had been maimed, there was a Bell, and that onwership, while it may have been confused, was geographically spot-on.

    If Haley did originally learn his family history in this oral tradition, I would say that his family had kept more accurate records then thousands of the white American genealogists (and the official records used for sources) I have encountered online. I could only wish to know with confidence that my great-great grandparents were without a doubt either from Virginia, as some data suggests, as opposed to South Carolina as other records show.

    While this article was well-written and well-researched, I think it betrays the true intention of the historical society: to take account, and sometimes pride, in its native sons and daughters that make up the community's rich history. Instead, this article merely offers evidence to disprove and discredit a primary source for one of its residents. Was Chicken George from Caswell County? The article never says. If there is any other documentation to support this, the Association needs to claim him proper, and I would suggest take advantage of the narrative provided by Haley, rather than cut down not only the legacy of George Lea, but the entire Haley family history.

    1. Agreed. And shame on these people for trying to tear Alex Haley down and disparage a classic. Especially now that he's no longer around to defend himself.

  2. do you have a picture of chicken george

    1. There is a picture of Chicken George. Kunte slave name was George not Toby

  3. Greetings:

    We have never seen an image of George (Chicken George) Lea (1806-1890).

    Best regards,

    Rick Frederick

    Archivist and Webmaster
    Caswell County Historical Association

    1. A photo of Chicken George/ George Lea and his tombstone in Henning, Tennessee.

  4. You know Alex has the tales told to him while he was growing up, this is what he had to go by when he was researching his family history. If Kunta Kinta was his reletive then his family had to pass it down to him...

  5. Even if the allegations are true and Haley's account of his family history is seriously flawed, regardless if it was intentional or not. The "Story" of Roots is still an awesome tale. It doesn't matter if the actual specifics of the story are true, the general occurrences, the generic history tell a tale of one of the darkest tales in American history. I have read the book and to this day continue to watch the DVD movies (Roots, Roots the next generations etc...) I believe it was a generally accurate account of slavery in those years.

  6. The story of Roots is false but the characters of Roots aren't. In order to make a movie about his family he had to either steal an idea or fabricate the story in order to bring them all to life. Slavery was real, no fabrication there, who really knows what their ancestors endured during that time, no one knows from day to day what their great, great, great, great grandparents lives were like. So I am grateful for Alex Haley bringing the truth of slavery to those of us who have often wonder what that period was like.

  7. The story of Roots is false but the characters of Roots aren't. In order to make a movie about his family he had to either steal an idea or fabricate the story in order to bring them all to life. Slavery was real, no fabrication there, who really knows what their ancestors endured during that time, no one knows from day to day what their great, great, great, great grandparents lives were like. So I am grateful for Alex Haley bringing the truth of slavery to those of us who have often wonder what that period was like.

    1. Thank you Alberta, thats what i keep telling everyone, he cant just write what was told to him by his grandmother and not use his imagination, if he had done that, the entire story wouldn't have been more than 3 lines.

  8. But yes ALEX HALEY goes and marries a white women lol