Rogers, Joel Augustus 1883(?)–1966
Joel Augustus Rogers 1883(?)–1966
Decades before there was anything like an academic discipline of black studies, J.A. Rogers was a one-man historical army fighting to rescue the cultural contributions of Africans and African-descended peoples from the neglect to which white-dominated history-writing had consigned them. Publishing his own books and working without the benefit of any education beyond the high school level, Rogers produced a long series of books between 1917 and 1966. An indefatigable researcher, he also had the gift of putting his ideas in words that touched ordinary readers; his books brought him a modest living, and many of them went through multiple editions.
Joel Augustus Rogers was born in 1883 (some sources give the year as 1880) in Negril, Jamaica, at that time part of Great Britain’s Caribbean empire. His father Samuel was a schoolteacher, but as the family grew it slipped deeper into poverty. Rogers’s mother died after four children were born; his father remarried and had seven more children. Taking a job as a plantation manager, he was still barely able to feed his large family.
Rogers escaped rural Jamaica by joining the British army, serving for four years as an artilleryman. He emigrated to the United States in 1906. Although he became a U.S. citizen in 1917, his first years in the country were difficult ones and did much to shape the attitudes he would hold for the rest of his life. Like other West Indians who came to the United States from predominantly black home countries, Rogers faced pervasive discrimination. Even as a student in school he had resisted doctrines of white superiority, and in the United States he thought back on the accomplishments of black West Indians who had excelled within the British educational and military systems. He grew into a fervent opponent of American racism.
For a time Rogers flirted with communism and socialism but was discouraged by the failure of these ideologies to address the central problem of racial prejudice. Like his compatriot Marcus Garvey, Rogers realized that the empowerment of African Americans depended upon a needed prior revolution in their internalized self-images. Thus Rogers set out as a writer to “disseminate truth in spite of the barriers of nation, race, or creed and to make our beloved country a real Republic,” as he wrote in the introduction to his first book, From “Superman” to Man (which was
That book, published in 1917, set out in short form many of the ideas on which Rogers would elaborate later in his career. Cast as a conversation between a black train porter and a southern politician, the book took issue with prevailing racist ideas by pointing to the accomplishments recorded throughout history by Africans and their descendants in other parts of the world. Largely self-taught, Rogers learned four languages (French, German, Portuguese, and Spanish), and set out to research the roles African peoples had played in world history. His travels took him to libraries and archives in Europe and Africa.
At a Glance…
Born Joel Augustus Rogers ca. 1883 in Negril, Jamaica (then a British colony); died on September 6, 1966; son of a schoolteacher; one of 11 children; came to United States, 1906; became U.S. citizen, 1916; married Helga Bresenthal, Education: Self-educated. Military service: Served in British army for four years.
Career: Historian, Wrote first book, From “Superman” to Man, 1917; became columnist, Pittsburgh Courier, and served as foreign correspondent in Ethiopia, 1930s; self published most of his own works; wrote over 15 nonfiction works; also wrote fiction and contributed to historical periodicals; investigated history of interracial relationships and marriage in three-volume Sex and Race, 1940-44; popular handbook 100 Amazing Facts about the Negro, with Complete Proof: A Short Cut to the World History of the Negro went into twenty-fourth edition, 1963.
Memberships: American Geographical Society, American Academy of Political Science, Société d’Anthropologie Paris, France.
Rogers made a living for a time as a journalist, writing for the Pittsburgh Courier and other papers with a mainly black readership. He wrote regular columns on black history and also served as a foreign correspondent, covering the coronation of Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie in 1930 and returning to Africa to report on the war against invading Italian fascists that broke out in Ethiopia in 1936 and formed a prologue to World War II. In covering that conflict, Rogers may have become the first African-American war correspondent. Historian George S. Schuyler (quoted by Turner in The Black Scholar) noted that Rogers did “more than anyone else to popularize Negro history… it was J. A. Rogers who week after week brought these facts to the attention of the Negro public.”
In the meantime, Rogers continued to work on what became a voluminous series of books, all but a few self-published. In the 1920s he wrote a short book about the Maroons, descendants of escaped slaves in the Caribbean and South America (Maroons of the West Indies and South America, 1921) and an anti-Ku Klux Klan tract (The Ku Klux Klan Spirit, 1923). By the 1930s his long labors in the field of biography were ready to bear fruit (he once said, according to Turner, that “biography will ever be the highest and most civilizing form of literature”). Large biographical tomes such as World’s Greatest Men of African Descent (1931) and the two-volume World’s Great Men of Color (1946) were accompanied by smaller works more suited to a general
Rogers also specifically focused on the question of interracial relationships and marriages. Here his writings are especially keen in anticipating issues that emerged with greater clarity later in the twentieth century. In such works as the three-volume Sex and Race (1940-1944) and Nature Knows No Color-Line (1952), he raised the issue, for example, of Thomas Jefferson’s children by his slave Sally Hemings (later confirmed by DNA sampling techniques), and pointed to the partially African heritage of various famous historical figures. More generally, he argued that the gradual mixture of the races was a nearly constant feature of human history.
Rogers continued to write for much of his long life. In the early 1950s he used his newspaper columns to come to the defense of the pioneering black historian W. E. B. DuBois when DuBois ran into trouble with the U.S. government after emigrating to Ghana. In 1959 Rogers completed Africa’s Gift to America, which outlined the contributions blacks made to the exploration of the continent; this theme, too, would be taken up by many other writers in the following decades. One of his several novels, She Walks in Beauty, was published in 1963 near the end of his life.
Rogers died after a stroke at his longtime home in New York’s Harlem neighborhood. Sources disagree about his deathdate, suggesting perhaps how little serious attention he received. Most sources, however, state that he died on September 6, 1966. Much of what is known of his life was communicated to biographers by his widow, Helga Bresenthal Rogers. Rogers was a self-taught and self-motivated historian whose prolific career clarified and applauded the accomplishments of many Africans and African Americans.
From “Superman” to Man, 1917.
As Nature Leads: An Informal Discussion of the Reason Why Negro and Caucasian Are Mixing in Spite of Opposition, 1919.
The Approaching Storm and How It May Be Averted: An Open Letter to Congress and the 48 Legislatures of the United States of America, 1920.
The Ku Klux Klan Spirit: A Brief Outline of the History of the Ku Klux Klan Past and Present, 1923.
100 Amazing Facts about the Negro, with Complete Proof: A Short Cut to the World History of the Negro, 1934.
Real Facts about Ethiopia, 1935.
World’s Greatest Men and Women of African Descent, 1935.
Sex and Race: Negro-Caucasian Mixing in All Ages and Lands, 1940-44.
World’s Great Men of Color, 1946.
Nature Knows No Color Line, 1952.
Africa’s Gift to America: The Afro-American in the Making and Saving of the United States, 1959.
Facts about the Negro, 1960.
She Walks in Beauty (fiction), 1963.
Selected Writings of Joel Augustus Rogers, ed. Kinya Kiorgozi, 1989.
Herdeck, Donald, ed., Caribbean Writers: A Bio-Bibliographical-Critical Encyclopedia, Three Continents Press, 1979.
Page, James A., ed. Selected Black American Authors: An Illustrated Bio-Bibliography, G.K. Hall, 1977.
Ploski, Harry A. and Warren Marr II, eds., The Negro Almanac, Bellwether, 1976.
Salzman, Jack, et al., eds., Encyclopedia of African-American Culture and History, Macmillan, 1996.
Smith, Jessie Carney, ed., Notable Black American Men, Gale, 1999.
The Black Scholar, January-February 1975, p. 33-9.
Contemporary Authors Online, The Gale Group, 2000.
—James M. Manheim
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