SALT LAKE CITY — If Alex Haley were still alive to see the progress and momentum of African genealogy and family history work, LeVar Burton knows how his old friend and mentor would react.
"He'd be blown away, I'm sure," Burton said. "He would be so happy to know that kind of information is accessible to all of us now."
Burton spoke to thousands gathered at the Salt Palace Convention Center Friday as part of African Heritage Day at RootsTech, a family history and technology conference.
Burton, the actor best known for his work with "Reading Rainbow," "Star Trek: The Next Generation," and his role as Kunta Kinte in Haley's 1977 "Roots" television miniseries, spoke to a few reporters backstage following his keynote speech. One of his primary topics was Haley and the author's impact on his life.
Haley was partly responsible for Burton deciding to come to RootsTech. On many occasions, Burton said Haley commented on how "incredibly good" people in Utah's genealogical community were to him.
"For me, coming here was an opportunity to personally connect with Alex and people and work that meant a lot to him and has had such an impact on me and so many others," Burton said.
Reflecting back on his "Roots" experience 40 years ago, Burton described Haley as a "riveting storyteller" who cared about people.
"What I remember most about Alex was his kindness," Burton said. "Alex took time for everyone. When you were in his presence you really got the sense you were the most important thing in that moment in the universe. Alex Haley was a great man."
Burton said "Roots" sparked an explosion in the genealogy world and marveled at the amount of time and effort it took Haley to go back seven generations and find the African village where his ancestors came, compared to the fast results and information that a DNA test can produce today.
"It's virtually a miracle," Burton said.
Last year Burton happily served as an executive producer for a new version of "Roots" produced by the History Channel, starring Malachi Kirby. It was an opportunity to retell the story to a new generation, Burton said.
"Storytelling has changed so much in 40 years. The world has changed so much," Burton said. "The storytelling needed to be updated."
For Burton in both films, the scene where Kunta Kinte is whipped for not acknowledging the name given by his slave master is the standout moment, he said.
"Having lived through that experience it cannot be explained, only shared," Burton said.2 comments on this story
After concluding his remarks, FamilySearch presented Burton with his family history, going back to ancestors who witnessed the Emancipation Proclamation. He was visibly emotional.
"I just got a motherload of information that I didn't have. I cannot wait to share it with the rest of my family," Burton said. "As you can imagine, this is an enormous gift. I am still trying to process what it means to me."
Burton shared advice for people in learning and sharing their own stories.
"Everyone has a story to tell, and nobody can benefit more from doing the research and telling it than you," Burton said. "In the age of social media, you can even find an audience for that story."