Celebrating the life and times of J A Rogers – one of the leading Black historians of all time

by Patrick Vernon 

After my recent article on the absence of black historians and the growing network of independent black scholars, I felt I wanted to share one of my personal heroes who embodies the characteristics and challenges that black historians face today.

WorldsGreatMenofColorVo913_fThis year is the fiftieth anniversary of the death of Joel Augustus Rogers, one of the most dynamic black historians and social commentators on modern times. Between 1920 and 1960s Rogers, through his columns ‘Your History’ and ‘Ruminations’ in African American newspapers (The Messenger, New York Amsterdam Times and Pittsburgh Courier) and his publications (Super to Man, 100 Amazing Facts of the Negro, Race and Sex, World’s Greatest Men of Colour, The Five Negro Presidents), made black history a popular subject of interest in America. He self published over 25 books which were read by millions of African Americans as well as people from Africa and the Caribbean. His books and articles covered issues such as race and sex intermixing, African civilisation, race relations, lynching, war and conflict, the experiences of black communities in Europe, and the achievements of men and women of colour covering a period of over 5000 years.

What was remarkable about Rogers was that he was an autodidact – he never went to university – and taught himself French, German, Spanish along with European and African history. He also travelled extensively in Europe and Africa to discover information, facts, pictures and artefacts (often relying on his own funds and using his role as foreign correspondent for the Pittsburgh Courier) on black historical achievement: the empires of Nubia and Kush; kings and queens in ancient Africa, Asia and European Royal families; popes; classical musicians; and military leaders.

Rogers was actively involved in The Harlem Renaissance in New York in the 1920s and the Negritude movement in Paris. He conversed with Marcus Garvey, Amy Jacques Garvey, W.E.B Du Bois, and Malcolm X. When he reported on the Italian invasion of Ethiopia for the Pittsburgh Courier in 1935-1936, he was the only black war correspondent on the paper. He was also recognised by John F. Kennedy when Kennedy was a senator in New York, and was honoured on a number of occasions by Haile Selassie.

Even J Edgar Hoover, the head of the FBI, recognised the impact of Rogers’ work; up to his early 80s there was FBI surveillance monitoring Rogers’ articles (along with those of a number of African American journalists during the Cold War period), as Rogers was often critical of US race relations and foreign policy in Africa and the Middle East. In addition, his lectures and books inspired many black people and influenced a growing number of white liberals, which the FBI recognised as a potential threat to national security.

Rogers was born in Sheffield in Westmoreland, Jamaica in 1880. His mother died at an early age, but his father, who was white, remarried and Rogers had in total 11 siblings. Many of his siblings subsequently migrated to America, passing as white to avoid racism. His father was a Methodist preacher and school teacher but eventually became a manager of a plantation. The family moved to St Ann’s Bay where Rogers first came into contact with Marcus Garvey.

In the post-slavery Caribbean the issue of race and class was still a defining factor which influenced the social and political structure of plantation economies. This was reflected in the schooling and rote learning of the British Empire and Christianity. Rogers, in his preface to 100 Amazing Facts of the Negro, talks about how the interpretation of the Biblical curse of Ham was used during his schooling to justify the plight and the underachievement of black people in the world. This, along with coming to terms with his own identity, likely became a key motivating factor in the dedication of his life to the cause of black history especially for a better future for young people.

Rogers subsequently joined the British Army and was posted to Port Royal at the Royal Garrison Artillery. His career only lasted for a few years after failing a medical exam which would have given him the opportunity of being posted overseas. He was disappointed and thus decided to leave Jamaica in 1906 for the United States. However, he never lost interest in the military as during his career he wrote a number of articles and pamphlets on African American experiences of the American civil war, the invasion of Abyssinia/Ethiopia in 1936 and the experiences of African American service men based in Germany after WW2. When Rogers first arrived in America, he initially trained as an interior designer in Chicago but had an interest in history and journalism. He developed this passion whilst working as a Pullman Porter for over 10 years travelling across America, which enabled him to research and learn about the country, the impact of segregation/Jim Crow and the experiences of African Americans. He eventually moved from Chicago and settled in Harlem, where he started to establish himself as a writer and historian, becoming a naturalised citizen in 1917.

Rogers, along with other black historians during the 1920s and 1930s, was dubbed as a ‘lay’ or ‘street’ historian. These historians included Carter G. Woodson, Hubert H. Harrison, John Edwards Bruce, Arthur A. Schomburg, Marcus Garvey, and Pauline Hopkins. These men and women did not have an academic background (apart from Woodson) or access to universities or mainstream publishing media and publishing houses. Instead they made their income by self publishing, writing articles mainly in the black press and creating a speaking circuit to generate revenue and promotion. Rogers was one of the very few to sustain such a career for over 50 years. This tradition of independent black historians has continued with the likes of Dr Ben-Jochannan, John Henrike Clarke, Cheik Anta Diop, Chancellor Williams, Amos Wilson, John G. Jackson, Ivan Van Sertima, and Molefi Kete Asante — as well as mainstream historians such as John H. Franklin, William Leo Hansbury, Henry Louis Gates Jr, Anna J Cooper, and Lerone Bennett Jr, to name but a few. In Africa and the Caribbean there have also been a number of leading historians such as Walter Rodney, Mwalimu Baruti, Mamadou Diouf, Ali Mazrui, CLR James, Eric Williams, Verene A. Shepherd, and Hilary Beckles.

Sadly, in Rogers’ era he was shunned and not recognised by the establishment, who described him as either not having any academic rigour or being unable to distinguish between facts and emotions. He was never approached to write or contribute to any leading historical or anthropological research programmes about Africa or African American heritage. Like some independent black scholars today, Rogers never received any funding to support his research nor commissions from mainstream publishers, and remained in debt to his printers until the end of his career.

To add further insult, his work was plagiarised by a number of historians, erasing his contributions to black intellectual thinking and tradition. Thankfully his wife Helga Rogers, who died in 2013, was able to republish his books and pamphlets with Black Classic Press for the last fifty years to ensure that we know of Rogers’ work.

When reflecting on Rogers’ work today, although his approach appeared unconventional it was important prior to the civil rights movement, the repeal of the miscegenation laws in the USA, and the independence of Caribbean and African countries.

Africas gift to AmericaJust imagine life in the inter-war years where black people around the world were subject to colonisation and racism. This was further reinforced with the rise of the Ku Klux Klan, the eugenics movement and fascism all justifying white supremacy with pseudo-scientific racism and notions that people of African descent were sub human and at the bottom of the evolutionary scale. Rogers’ research and writing, along with many others’, created the platform for activists, celebrities, people in public life and many ordinary men and women to have the confidence to use factual information around self-esteem and racial pride to challenge stereotypes in a hostile world, especially leading up to WW2 and the Cold War period. However, Rogers had an optimistic perspective that if white people were educated about black contribution to the world, this would eradicate racism and prejudice in the future.

Rogers died on the 26th of March 1966 in New York with the advent of Black Power and the civil rights movements. His work was seen as dated in not confronting racism and segregation as people wanted to take direct action. Nevertheless, it was his and many other black historians’ research and contributions that subsequently led to black studies departments in American Universities and Black History Month internationally.

Rogers also inspired others who are independent black scholars, including myself, to research, write and sell our work outside mainstream publishing and the academic world. Sadly his books are not known or even considered in academic circles today. I have studied Rogers’ techniques in using creative narrative, images, facts and lists of achievements and adopted them in my own methodology through my work on 100 Great Black Britons and Every Generation Media, in an effort to popularise Black British history and the impact of African diaspora heritage in society.

Rogers has left a rich legacy as part of an intellectual tradition of black historians that is not only rooted in the community but is also a part of independent scholarship.

Considering Rogers’ endeavours within the wider social and political context in which he lived, it is vital to acknowledge his pioneering historical research which did so much to usher in new ways of understanding black history. The Jamaican government should also recognise Rogers as a national hero because of the global impact of his research and publications, which further our fight for emancipation and freedom.

Patrick will be discussing Rogers’ life at a future event at Black Cultural Archives in 2016. Also listen to his tribute on his radio show The Museum of Grooves on the 17th of May between 8 -10pm: http://www.reelrebelsradio.com/archives/museumofgrooves

 

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Patrick Vernon OBE is a leading expert on African and Caribbean genealogy in the UK. Founder of Every Generation Media and 100 Great Black Britons Patrick was selected by the Queen as Pioneer of the Nation for Cultural History in 2003. He has researched family history and Swahili culture in East Africa and Oman as a Clore Fellow and has advised the BBC, The National Archives, The National Trust, Royal Geographic Society, Victoria & Albert Museum and the British Council. In 2012 he was awarded an OBE for his work tackling health inequalities for ethnic minority communities in Britain. Having worked for the Department of Health, NHS and the voluntary sector Patrick is an Associate Fellow at the Department of the History of Medicine at Warwick University, England. See his website www.patrickvernon.org.uk or find him on Twitter @ppvernon

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2 replies

  1. Thanks for this, Patrick. I found Rogers “Sex and Race” particularly interesting when I read it several years ago. You’re right, he has not received sufficient recognition and there is much to be learnt from his techniques

    Like

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