Haley, George 1925–
George Haley 1925–
Ambassador to The Gambia
George Haley, brother to famed author Alex Haley, is making his own connection to the West African heritage probed by his brother in the acclaimed novel, Roots, as the ambassador to The Gambia. Appointed by President Clinton to the diplomatic post in 1998, Haley is no stranger to government service, bringing many years experience at the United States Information Agency and the United States Postal Commission with him. He overcame racism in the post-segregation era to accomplish much as a lawyer and public servant.
George Williford Boyce Haley was born in August of 1925. The middle son between brothers Alex and Julius, George lost his mother when he was six years old. But though times were hard, his father kept the family together in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, where he was teaching at the institution that eventually became the University of Arkansas.
After a couple of years, Simon Haley married again. His new wife, also a college teacher, did not care for Pine Bluff, so after a year she joined a faculty in Memphis and took the children to live with her. Though George’s father remained in Arkansas, during World War II he was sent to New Jersey by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. One summer, George followed him east to work on a peach farm, and stayed to finish high school in Bordentown, New Jersey. He was drafted into the U.S. Air Corps shortly after his 18th birthday, and spent the next three years in military service.
George Haley was 21-years old when the G.I. Bill gave him the chance to enter one of America’s most highly-esteemed universities for black students. An all-male school, Morehouse College in Atlanta had been established in 1867 with the express mission of training such outstanding young men as Martin Luther King, Jr., for leadership in the African American community. Haley did well there, thriving under the stimulating stewardship of College President Benjamin Mays. Like many other Morehouse graduates, he still attributes the direction of his life to Dr. Mays, quoting often from the Mays maxim that travels with him in his billfold: “It isn’t a calamity to die with dreams unfulfilled, but it is a calamity not to dream.”
At a Glance…
Born August 28, 1925; married, 1954; two children. Education: Graduated from Morehouse College, BA, 1949; University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, JD, 1952. Military Service: US. Army Air Corps.
Career: Private law practice, Kansas City, 1952; deputy city attorney, 1954-64; state senator, Kansas, 1964-68; chief counsel of the Urban Mass Transportation Administration, 1969-73; associate director for Equal Employment Opportunity at the UN Information Agency (USIA), 1973-76, general counsel and congressional liaison, 1976-77; partner in Obermayer, Rebman, Maxwell & Hippel, 1977-81; in practice in Washington, specializing m transportation, corporate and international law, 1981-90; United States delegation at the 22nd General Conference of UNESCO in Paris, 1983; U.S. delegation to 2nd International Conference on Assistance to Refugees in Africa in Geneva, 1984; 1 of 15-member panel on U.S. withdrawal from UNESCO, 1984; appointed chair of the U.S. Postal Rate Commission, 1990; reappointed to the Commission, 1993; Ambassador to The Gambia, 1998-.
Awards: Outstanding Alumni Award, University of Arkansas, 1988; Morehouse College, Man of the Year, 1991; honorary chair, 2nd anniversary of Kunta Kinte Day, Annapolis, MD, 1988.
Addresses: Office —Banjul (E), Fajara, Kairaba Ave., P.M.B, The Gambia.
Just before his graduation in 1949, Haley’s own dreams led him to law school. Though he had thought of going to Harvard University in Boston, where he would have been comfortably accepted, a letter from his father reminded him gently of the leadership mission of Morehouse, and pointed out the path that George should follow. A Reader’s Digest article, written in 1963 by his brother Alex, tells us what this missive said: “Segregation won’t end until we open beachheads wherever it exists,” his father wrote. “The governor of Arkansas and educational officials have decided upon a quiet tryout of university integration…You have the needed scholastic record and temperament, and I understand that Arkansas has one of the South’s best law schools.” His father’s faith in him was enough to persuade George Haley to change his mind about Harvard, in favor of the Law School at the University of Arkansas.
From the first day, George found law school a difficult experience. Not only was this his first experience as a black person living amongst whites, but he was only the third black student that the University of Arkansas had ever admitted. In classes, he and another black student sat in chairs separated from the other students. Between classes, he was expected to stay in a basement room, and to bring a sandwich for lunch so he would not have to use the cafeteria. Other students deepened his sense of isolation through overt acts of racism, on one occasion even flinging a bag of urine in Haley’s face to discourage his use of the public restroom. Even his basement room was hardly a refuge. Haley often found threatening notes shoved under his door, and once even found a noose dangling from the ceiling.
Anguished letters to his father produced sympathy, but also the observation that these students were afraid of George because he was different. Paternal advice counseled him to be patient, and give his fellow students time to realize they had nothing to fear from him. So George Haley decided to stick it out and write every word the instructor said, by using a semi-shorthand he had learned in the Air Force. At the end of the second semester, though he had lost 30 pounds, he had earned the highest grades in the class. Furthermore, four of his classmates ventured to knock on the door of the basement room to tell him the good news.
Difficult as it was to accept, his father’s advice paid off. As Haley started on his second year of classes at the school there was a noticeable decrease in fellow students’ hatred, while respect for his scholastic ability grew. Towards the end of the year, he was even asked to contribute articles for the school’s Law Review.
As time went on, Haley even felt secure enough to join the blossoming civil rights movement. This too, was a bittersweet experience, according to fellow civil rights activist Miller Williams, a friend who later became a professor of English and foreign languages at the University of Arkansas. One incident, recalled Miller, was sparked when he and Haley had to cross the Arkansas state line into South Carolina. Because Miller was white, both men knew it would probably be impossible to eat together anywhere in South Carolina. However, rather than allow himself to be stumped by this exasperating bigotry, Haley simply went out and bought a chauffeur’s cap, posing as Miller’s “boy” so that he could access white restrooms and restaurants.
In 1952, newly-graduated George Haley opened a legal practice in Kansas City. At the same time, he served as a deputy city attorney to Kansas City itself. This post brought him a wide variety of duties, most performed in company with other colleagues. Among his responsibilities were: to defend the city against any claims for personal injury or damage to property; to draft and review any contracts put out for construction or road building projects; to draft and review the city ordinances and by-laws, and to give general legal advice to the mayor and other officers on any other city business as it arose.
In 1964, Haley campaigned to become a state senator. As Alex Haley noted, some of his brother’s most enthusiastic support came from their 82-year-old cousin Georgia, who listened intently to all the campaign talk about something called “George’s integrity.” Then, primed for action, she stumped for the candidate by taking a large photo of him and banging on the doors of all the prospective voters she knew, to make sure they knew about “George’s integrity.”
Cousin Georgia’s support notwithstanding, when the results were in, 39-year-old George Haley, a staunch Republican, was one of the first two black Americans elected to the upper chamber of the State Legislature. His constituents soon found that he had a major interest in two subjects close to their hearts. “I think Kansas civil rights laws should be improved in reference to fair housing and fair employment practices,” he told the Topeka Capitol Journal, in January of 1965.
By the end of his term in 1968, George Haley’s destiny was closely entwined with the government. The following year he moved to Silver Spring, Maryland, to take an appointment as President Nixon’s chief counsel to the Urban Mass Transportation Administration. He stayed there for years, moving on, in 1973, to the United States Information Agency (USIA). The USIA is a government agency which represents the United States in 143 countries around the world. It is entrusted with the important mission of explaining America’s foreign and domestic policies to governments everywhere, with the end goal of building fruitful international relationships for the United States. George Haley was first hired as the associate director for Equal Employment Opportunity, and later became the agency’s general counsel and congressional liaison. In 1977, when the Democratic era of President Jimmy Carter began, he left government service for legal practice, first accepting a partnership in the Washington, D.C. firm of Obermayer, Rebman, Maxwell, and Hippel, and later establishing his own firm.
The election of President Ronald Reagan in 1980 marked Haley’s return to the government arena. A lifelong Republican, he found himself marching in step with Reagan-era policies. Like the President, Haley felt it necessary to send aid to the contras fighting the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, in order to avoid the spread of Communist influence, and he did not support abortion. But most of all, as he told the Washington Post in August of 1986, he remained a Republican because he believed that “blacks are better advantaged politically if we have some power in both political parties.” His reasoning, careful as always, was that the Democratic Party should not be able simply to rely on black voters without having to work for their support.
Haley’s staunch support for the Republican cause brought him several assignments as a delegate representing the United States at conferences overseas. He was sent to Paris in 1983 for the General Conference of UNESCO; to Geneva, Switzerland, the following year for the Second International Conference on Assistance to Refugees in Africa, and also to the Fourth African-African-American Summit in Harare, Zimbabwe.
In 1986, despite the fact that GOP officials believed that a black candidate would have difficulty raising money in Maryland, Haley sought the Republican nomination in the September 9 primary for the U.S. Senate. Though he failed in his political bid, this minor setback did not discourage him from staying in public service.
In 1989, Haley was appointed by President Bush to serve as chair of the U.S. Postal Rate Commission. A government agency established in 1970, the Postal Rate Commission has the important responsibility of setting the country’s domestic and international postal rates. Other duties center around opening and closing post offices, and handling complaints affecting national postal service.
In 1992, George Haley’s beloved brother Alex died of a sudden heart attack while on a trip to Seattle. As the family pragmatist, George was called upon to handle his estate—not an easy matter, since Alex was deeply in debt at the time of his death. As if this was not complicated enough, he was also separated from his third wife at the time of his death; two of his previous wives had filed lawsuits against his estate; and several other women were also claiming shares in it.
It was a traumatic problem to face, but George tackled it with his usual efficiency, listing items methodically for immediate auction. “I knew we had to do something to have some liquid assets,” he told Emerge in 1994, when everything had been settled. And indeed, the auction of Haley’s manuscripts and personal possessions brought in more than $800,000. Next to go was Alex Haley’s 127-acre farm about 20 miles north of Knoxville, Tennessee, which was bought by the Children’s Defense Fund for use as a training retreat and conference center. But, though his personal possessions were now scattered far and wide, Alex’s true legacy was, as George understood, forever preserved in Roots, the novel which not only documented his own family history, but encouraged countless others to delve into the mysteries of their own genealogical origins.
Though the ache of bereavement takes years to subside, life eventually draws onwards. For George Haley, the onward path in the Postal Rate Commission continued serenely until 1998, when President Clinton nominated him as the U.S. Ambassador to the Republic of The Gambia. Haley was well-acquainted with this West African country as it was the setting for Roots. He, personally, had visited the country four times. The Gambia called to him across the span of two centuries, keeping alive the name of his ancestor Kunta Kinte, the great-great-great-great-grandfather who had been snatched away and brought across the seas to endure the slavery from which he never escaped.
The Gambia of the late 20th-century still has much in common with the country Kunta Kinte knew. A long, slender land in West Africa that is completely surrounded by Senegal, The Gambia is home to more than a million people, many of whom are subsistence farmers producing rice, corn, and peanuts, just as they did in Kunta Kinte’s time. However, there the resemblance ends. The Gambia of today has a flourishing tourist industry, is well-acquainted with such modern conveniences as computers, and boasts diplomatic ties with the country which once drained its population for the slave trade.
George Haley was sworn in as the U.S. Ambassador by Vice President Al Gore at Howard University in Washington, D.C. in September of 1998. Despite the bleak history of slavery that lies in his past, the 73-year-old Haley was delighted to accept this new assignment. “Much of my life has been directed towards being able to have people understand and appreciate and respect each other more,” he remarked. “I strongly believe in the brotherhood and sisterhood of people.”
In December, hundreds of The Gambia’s people were in the streets to welcome Haley when he presented his papers to the president, Alhaji Yahya Jammeh. The newspaper, The Gambia Daily Observer, called his arrival a true homecoming, leaving little doubt that he and his wife would find a warm welcome, not only among the Gambians, but also among the 870 Americans who live in Banjul, the country’s capital and home of the American Embassy.
Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, August 30, 1998, p. D1.
Emerge, February 28, 1994, p. 65.
Jet, October 19, 1992, p. 14; October 5, 1998, p. 34; December 21, 1998, p. 40.
Reader’s Digest, March 1963, p. 54.
Washington Post, August 29, 1981; May 6, 1986, p. B1; August 10, 1986, p. D1;
Further information for this essay came from a White House press release and other government documents.
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