Joel Augustus Rogers, Jamaican-American author, journalist, and historian was born on September 6, 1880, in Negril, Westmoreland. According to W.E.B DuBois, No man living has revealed so many important facts about the Negro race as has Rogers.” He moved to the United States in 1906, living first in Chicago and then New York City.
His interest in the history of African Americans led him to pursue studies in history, sociology, and anthropology. Rogers challenged ideas about the social construction of race and identified the links between civilizations. He also traced the achievements of African peoples, including those with mixed European heritage. Rogers was one of the earliest scholars to popularize African history in the 20th century.
Rogers was one of eleven children. His parents, who were of mixed race, worked as a minister and a school teacher. While he and his siblings had only a rudimentary education, his parents emphasized the importance of learning.
Roberts became a naturalized American citizen in 1916 while living in New York City, where he remained for much of his life. A New York resident during the time of the Harlem Renaissance, he was good friends with Hubert Harrison, an activist and intellectual based in Harlem. He returned to Chicago in the 1920s and worked as a Pullman porter and as a reporter for the Chicago Enterprise newspaper. Working as a porter allowed him to travel and continue his education by visiting libraries in the cities he visited.
He self-published several books on his research at this time. His first book was “From ‘Superman’ to Man.” Self-published in 1917, it criticized the belief that African inferiority and the ignorance that fosters racism. Its plot involves a debate between a Pullman porter and a white racist politician from the South and addresses the lack of scientific support for the idea that white people are superior to black people, the lack of black history told from the perspective of black people, and the intermarriage of people of different races throughout history. The book also displays Rogers’ disillusionment with Christianity, viewing it as a “the greatest hindrance” to the progress of black people.
Rogers worked as a journalist during the 1920s at several newspapers, including the Pittsburgh Courier and the Chicago Enterprise. He was also a sub-editor of Marcus Garvey’s Daily Negro Times. He covered numerous important events of his time, including in the coronation of Emperor Haile Selassie I of Ethiopia for New York’s Amsterdam News. He interviewed Marcus Garvey for that newspaper while Garvey was in prison in the US in November of 1926.
Additionally, Rogers worked as one of just two black US war correspondents during World War II. His cartoon history feature “Your History” recounted short items about African Americans that he collected in his research. This feature started in the Pittsburgh Courier in 1934 and, with a name change to “Facts about the Negro” in 1962, it continued even after his death, ending only in 1971.
In his many works based on his research, Rogers refuted the racist beliefs of his time and provided proof that several figures central to history who were assumed to be white Europeans such as Aesop, Cleopatra, and Hannibal, were actually black. He also noted the black ancestry of people like Alexander Pushkin and Alexandre Dumas (the father). Rogers also claimed that a direct ancestor of the British royal family Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz had a distant ancestor of African origin.
He was a member of professional associations such as the Paris Society of Anthropology, the American Geographical Society, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and the Academy of Political Science. He died on March 26, 1966, and was survived by his wife, Helga M. Rogers.