The 1900s was an especially tumultuous time for race relations. Although slavery had ended almost everywhere around the world, people still believed that Africans were less than human. In fact, in an effort to prove black inferiority, many Africans brought to the New World were put on exhibit in zoos in the Western world. There, they were watched, pried, and abused as if they were animals.
But while racists did their best to propagate a black inferiority agenda, there were black leaders like Jamaican, Joel Augustus Rogers, a self-taught author, journalist, and historian, who sought to counter this narrative. Rogers is heralded as one of the earliest and greatest popularizers of African history in the 20th century.
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Rogers was born on September 6, 1883, in Negril, Jamaica, one of eleven children to his mixed-race parents. His parents who were a minister and school teacher, could only afford to give Rogers and his ten siblings basic education, but they stressed the importance of learning, a habit and value Rogers carried throughout his life.
In 1906, Rogers emigrated from Jamaica to the United States, living briefly in Chicago then settling in Harlem, New York. In Chicago, Rogers worked as a porter where the opportunity to travel allowed him to observe and expand his intellectual base, using libraries in the cities he visited to learn.
In 1916, Rogers became a naturalized citizen of America and lived in New York most of his life where he became an intellectual force during the Harlem Renaissance, a time of great African-American artistic and intellectual life in American history.
Eventually finding his niche as a journalist and historian, he focused on combating white racist propaganda in books, films, and other media of the time. In 1917, Rogers published his seminal work, From Superman to Man, where his protagonist, a racist Southern senator, eventually came to realize that he was just human and had to change his racist beliefs. Another one of his most important works, 100 Amazing Facts About the Negro, was published in 1934. 100 Amazing Facts About the Negro is often sighted by writers and historians for its depth and veracity.
Rogers also published other important works such as Sex and Race Volume 1 (1941), Sex and Race, Volume 2 (1942); Sex and Race, Volume III (1944); World’s Great Men of Color (1946), and Africa’s Gifts to America (1961), and hundreds of other articles, short stories and poetry.
So skilled was Rogers at his craft and so important were his contributions to African history that he was present at the coronation of Emperor Haile Selassie in 1930. Five years later, he worked as the correspondent for the Pittsburgh Courier, covering the Italo-Ethiopian conflict.
With no formal educational degrees or training in established academic programs, Rogers is still regarded for his professional excellence and intellect. He was multilingual, having mastered German, Italian, French, and Spanish and belonged to the Paris Society for Anthropology, American Geographical Society, and the Academy of Political Science.
Rogers died in New York City on March 26, 1966, having committed himself to writing anti-racist history that showcased the humanity of Africans his entire life. As America ends its celebration of Carribean American Heritage Month this June, it is important that we never forget Rogers’ incredible story of self-learning, discipline, and selfless contribution to world history.