Editor’s note: For those who are wondering about the retro title of this black-history series, please take a moment to learn about historian Joel A. Rogers, author of the 1934 book 100 Amazing Facts About the Negro With Complete Proof, to whom these “amazing facts” are an homage.
Amazing Fact About the Negro No. 100: Which journalist was among the first to bring black-history facts to the masses?
If your family was black and in delivery range of Pittsburgh in the middle of the 20th century, “Mr. Rogers” wasn’t a kindly white man you watched changing sweaters on TV. No, he was a black columnist for the legendary Pittsburgh Courier, and his pithy and always intriguing tidbits of African and African-American history armed you with facts about the black experience that seemed more like fantasies. Since we certainly weren’t being taught anything about black people at school, Joel A. Rogers was just about the only source of black history that a few generations of us had.
His aptly named Amazing Facts were just that—truly amazing and mind blowing, really, if you recall the vacuum of knowledge about the black world in which they were published. Remember how astonished you were when you first heard the following things: “You mean the author of The Three Musketeers was black?” “Wait!? Thomas Jefferson had children with his slave Sally Hemings? And Abraham Lincoln wanted to ship free black people back to Africa?” “There were African popes? Stop your lying!” “A black university in Timbuktu, 500 years ago? Get out of town.”
Reading Rogers’ columns was always an adventure in frying the Negro mind.
Of course, there was something of the showman in Joel Augustus Rogers. In fact, the first edition of his now legendary 100 Amazing Facts About the Negro With Complete Proof was billed as “A Negro ‘Believe It or Not,’ ” with Rogers signifying on Robert Ripley’s brain-bending series that had premiered in the New York Globe in October 1919. Heralding its arrival on Sept. 20, 1934, the Philadelphia Tribune pitched Rogers’ “100 ‘amazes’ ” to Depression-weary readers as “sold for a dime or at the rate of 10 nervous shocks for a penny.” And there were no middlemen. Readers were told to purchase copies straight from the author himself, “J.A. Rogers,” at “2293 Seventh Ave., New York City.”
No wonder I still hear from people who have found old copies tucked away on their parents’ or grandparents’ shelves. The original 100 Amazing Facts was a “Big History in Race” for (what was then) the price of a gallon of gas or bottle of Pepsi!
Actually, Rogers’ little book was priceless, because of what he was delivering: enlightenment and pride, steeped in historical research, to a people too long starved on the lie that they were worth nothing because their ancestors had contributed nothing to world civilization. Deep in his bones, Rogers knew what a big fat lie that was, and he used every ounce of creative energy he had to expose the twin fallacies on which it was based: racial purity and white supremacy. For African Americans of the Jim Crow era, Rogers was their first black history teacher. And he wrote to educate, with the black everyman and everywoman foremost in mind.
Did he sometimes embellish what he had found? Yes, Rogers wasn’t above shock journalism. Did he miss key details? Absolutely. His style was brief and to the point, with a minimum of words and ambiguity, so that the “facts” could speak for themselves. His style was designed to make his readers’ jaws drop.
Critics skeptical of Rogers’ style dismissed him as a “vindicationist” for an aggrieved race, as historian Thabiti Asukile reports in one of his meritorious studies, “J.A. Rogers: The Scholarship of an Organic Intellectual,” which appeared in the summer-fall 2006 issue of the Black Scholar. And in many of the previous 99 columns in this series, we have put J.A.R.’s amazes to the test under a retro-series title that has rightfully and playfully paid him homage. What we’ve learned across these two-plus years is that, although Rogers didn’t bat a thousand, he consistently and tantalizingly raised questions about history that stimulated others like myself to dig deeper. But make no mistake, ladies and gentlemen: J.A. Rogers was as serious a researcher as they come, as serious as W.E.B. Du Bois and Carter G. Woodson. And when you study his life, you realize he wasn’t just an aficionado of amazing facts. He was one of those facts, and thus an examination of his life constitutes the only fitting conclusion to The Root’s unprecedented 100-column series.
Joel Augustus Rogers was born in Negril, Jamaica, on Sept. 6, 1880, to Samuel and Emily (Johnstone) Rogers. When university study was precluded in the Caribbean (it’s unclear why, says Asukile in “Joel Augustus Rogers: Black International Journalism, Archival Research, and Black Print Culture,” in the summer-fall 2010 issue of the Journal of African American History), Rogers served for four years in the Royal Garrison Artillery.
A heart murmur may have kept him from serving overseas, but not from traveling. As for looks, Rogers was told he could pass for Cuban, yet when he emigrated to the United States in 1906, it became clear that, under the old one-drop rule, he was black (as Du Bois had noted three years earlier in The Souls of Black Folk). Thus, Rogers was relegated to the hard-luck side of the color line, a fact made all too clear when he was, Asukile writes, dissed at a restaurant in New York’s Times Square.
After visiting Boston, Rogers next made his way westward to Chicago, where he worked on a Pullman car while taking classes at the Art Institute of Chicago. (Apparently, Rogers thought about going into interior design until he found out that, for black people, that meant house painting.) He also said later that the University of Chicago denied him admission because, in Asukile’s words, “he did not possess the necessary high school credits.” From then on, Rogers knew that whatever he would accomplish in life as a man of letters would have to be done without degrees.
Debunking the One-Drop Rule
Rogers’ first novel, 1917’s From Superman to Man, conjured up a dialogue between a Southern senator and a well-read railroad porter on a westward-bound train. It had obvious analogues in real life (not coincidentally, Rogers’ porter looked “Cuban” like himself) in the lives of countless African Americans for whom the railroads signified both freedom and segregation, from Homer Plessy to A. Philip Randolph to Malcolm X. That same year, Rogers also became a U.S. citizen, the United States entered the Great War and, in the greatest home-front calamity of the age, 36 more black people were lynched on American soil.
History was her way of fighting back. Rogers was especially devoted to debunking the false religion of racial purity then being expounded in such racist texts as Thomas Dixon’s 1905 novel The Clansman, later adapted for the screen by D.W. Griffiths in 1915’s Birth of a Nation. The whole legal apparatus of segregation hinged on the illusion that whites and blacks could easily be identified, then rigidly categorized, so that any advantages in life were doled out only to those free of any (obvious) “drops” of African blood. Such a system was not only idiotic, diabolically conceived and capricious, but it also distorted whites’ and blacks’ relative self-worth.
Here’s how Rogers explained it in his “History Shows” column in the Pittsburgh Courier on Oct. 24, 1964:
For 300 years, the Negro in America has been told he is a nobody. Results: a large majority has, even without knowing it, an inferiority complex, which can be overcome only by knowing the other side of the story.
For myself … I never had an inferiority complex. … I read the world’s best literature, Shakespeare, Victor Hugo, Goethe, Schopenhauer, Emerson and was, by them, lifted to the heights. But in all my readings, I ran across nothing about great black men. Instead, I was told as a child that black people were cursed by God in the Bible, because Ham had laughed at his father, Noah. Later, I read Thomas Dixon’s ‘The Clansman,’ in which he said, that ‘one drop of Negro blood dulls the intellect,’ and makes one hopelessly inferior. Of course that included me. I had more than one drop—and know it as a colossal lie. But I knew of no great Negroes. So I began my researches.
Rather than merely protest the one-drop rule, Rogers embraced its “illogicality … forced upon him—to striking advantage,” Princeton professor John Ralph Willis wrote in the New York Times on Feb. 4, 1973. Rogers’ game plan was simple: proudly claim for the black race any man, woman or child, including gods or goddesses, he found in the pages and paintings of history manifesting traces of African or “Negroid” ancestry. Textbook examples of his were Pushkin, de’ Medici, as well as Gen. Thomas-Alexandre Dumas and Alexandre Dumas, each of whom we’ve met in this series. Rogers poked as much as he prodded, while restoring to greatness lost heroes of the black experience, among them Saint Maurice, Benjamin Banneker, Toussaint L’Ouverture, Paul Cuffee, Cetshwayo and past Congressional Medal of Honor recipients.
Rogers waged his battle against Jim Crow on three broad fronts: history, genealogy and genetics, as historian W. Burghardt Turner wrote in his essay “J.A. Rogers: Portrait of an Afro-American Historian,” in the January-February 1975 issue of the Black Scholar. Rogers didn’t need yet-to-be-discovered DNA science to tell him that sex between the races had been going on since “time immemorial” (often forced, as in the American slave context). If anything, Turner explains, Rogers detected “a seemingly mystical attraction of the light to the dark” (not the other way around) and tried proving it in his mini-exposés of famous world leaders, from the Founding Fathers to the French. Rogers, for example, was among the very few of his day to even speak of Thomas Jefferson’s relationship with Sally Hemings, a tangled history that generations later would earn a Pulitzer for my Harvard colleague Annette Gordon-Reed.
What amazes me about Rogers is that he did all of this virtually by himself. No mainstream publisher would touch his books, so he released them through his own label: the J.A. Rogers Historical Research Society. Making matters more difficult: Rogers had no grants or foundation support to speak of and no lectureships or professorships to sustain him. And except for a $300 infusion from H.L. Mencken (a fact Rogers noted in the Courier on Oct. 24, 1964), he paid his own way. That meant he hustled.
The black press (effectively, the nation’s first black studies departments) gave Rogers his day job reporting the news, first for the Chicago Enterprise and then, when he moved back to New York in 1921, for fellow Jamaican Marcus Garvey’s Daily Negro Times. From there, Rogers’ rise was quick, Asukile notes. Of particular help was the noted black essayist George Schuyler, who networked Rogers to A. Philip Randolph’s socialist Messenger magazine before they became colleagues at the Pittsburgh Courier. It was for the Courier and New York Amsterdam News that Rogers made two critical trips abroad in the 1920s.
The world was suddenly different after World War. Some European powers had fallen and the future of others was in doubt, while a nascent Pan-Africanism, encouraged by Du Bois, was on the rise. In the thick of it, Rogers traveled across Britain, North Africa, Italy and Spain, absorbing everything he could. He made Paris his home base and there became a proselytizer of jazz. He even had his essay “Jazz at Home” anthologized in the founding document of the Harlem Renaissance, Alain Locke’s The New Negro: An Interpretation.
In his spare time, Rogers hunted for whatever lost or buried information from the black past he could find. He was as equally fascinated by the written word as by the visual arts. (It helped that he spoke several languages.) “He has looked into old church niches, museums, antiquated bookshops,” William Nunn of the Pittsburgh Courier wrote in 1960. And in those places, and in the world’s greatest libraries, Rogers found gold—black gold.
For his efforts, as Asukile writes in the African American National Biography, Rogers was elected to the Paris Society of Anthropology. And when he returned home to Depression-era New York, he was a library of one, like his Harlem neighbor Arthur Schomburg. As Floyd J. Calvin excitedly observed in the Pittsburgh Courier in 1931:
J.A. Rogers, international correspondent of the Negro press and research student in African and European history of Negroes, returned to the United States last Saturday aboard the SS Albert Ballin of the Hamburg American line after spending four years in the best libraries of Europe. … He brought back 100 biographies of great Negroes, such as kings, statesmen, generals, philosophers, scientists, poets, etc.; 150 photos of these notables of history; 24 photos of Negro kings of Egypt which he secured from museums in Cairo, and several prints of gods and goddesses of Egypt showing that they were unmistakably Negroes.
With encouragement from Schuyler and a green light from Robert Vann, his editor at the Courier, Rogers launched his popular “Your History” column as a weekly vehicle for communicating the treasure trove of amazing facts he had brought back. Soon illustrations were added, thanks to the artistry of George L. Lee and Samuel Malai. Here’s an amazing fact: Rogers’ series ran from 1934 all the way to 1966 (though from 1962 on it was called “Facts About the Negro”).
In addition, Rogers wrote the novels Blood Money (1923) and She Walks in Beauty (1963) as well as the nonfiction works As Nature Leads (1919), World’s Greatest Men of African Descent (1931), World’s Greatest Men and Women of African Descent (1935), Sex and Race (1940-1944), World’s Great Men of Color (1946-1947), Nature Knows No Color-Line (1952), Africa’s Gift to America (1959) and, of course, 100 Amazing Facts About the Negro.
Of it, H.L. Mencken wrote in the New York Amsterdam News on Sept. 22, 1934: “If you are willing to forego bridge and idle gossip for a change, you might pass an interesting evening testing your friends on the contents of this highly informative pamphlet.” But the highest praise came from Rogers’ buddy Schuyler who, in reviewing World’s Greatest Men and Women of African Descent in the Courier on Feb. 16, 1935, wrote, “It costs but a dollar, and along with the Bible, the dreambook and the numbers chart, should be in every Negro home.”
Rogers’ work had obvious grassroots appeal. “As teachers of history, my sister and I have found this material helpful,” one New Orleans teacher wrote the Courier on Sept. 19, 1935. “Here are a few practical uses that may be made of it: 1. It may be preserved in scrapbook form. (Its appeal to children is striking.) 2. It may well grace the bulletin boards of progressive lodges, libraries, civic clubs, and schools. 3. It serves as an impetus to encourage the further study of Negro history. I am certain that with your fund of journalistic experience, that you will readily agree that often an illustrated feature or cartoon achieves greater results than a page of dry paint. (Especially when it is easily assimilated and digested ‘at a glance.’)”
At the same time, Asukile says Rogers should be remembered as a top journalist of his day, not just in reporting on the jazz scene, but more prominently in covering the 1930 coronation of Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie and Mussolini’s subsequent assault on Ethiopia in 1935. In the anxious years leading up to World War II, the latter earned Rogers acclaim, and more important, speaking gigs. And whatever he made he poured right into his book projects.
When I first thought of this column, I intended to give Rogers a letter grade for his decades of work. Then I remembered: In the 21st-century world you and I share, we have the benefit of digitization and easy access to leading experts in the field a click or two away. So, knowing what I know now, if pressed, I’d assign Rogers a solid “B” for accuracy.
Of course it would be difficult to assign a grade to every one of his facts, since Rogers’ book went through 23 editions between 1934 and 1957, with a revised edition in 1962, and most of his answers merited at least partial credit.
Just to give you a sense of the scorecard, Juan Garrido, we know, was the first documented black person in the New World—in 1513, not thousands of years before Columbus, as Rogers posited. On the other hand, Rogers put explorers like Estevanico and du Sable on the map. And while he was wrong, for example, about the Ganges River being named for an Ethiopian king, he was right about that country’s ancient royal lineage and coffee tradition. Also, to Rogers’ credit, he wasn’t afraid to match a story about an African prince being stolen into slavery with that of an African slave trader, ‘Mongo John.’
Offsetting this first grade, I’d give Rogers no less than an A, or perhaps even an A+, for his effort. As William Nunn tried to explain in 1960, Rogers (whom Nunn called the “Dean of Negro Historians”) had, in his relentless pursuit of the truth, made nine cross-Atlantic trips and visited 48 out of 50 states and, as a one-man shop, “spent all the money he ha[d] made over the past 43 years in publishing books” and “keeping nine books in print.”
Accordingly, Rogers also merits A grades for his productivity and relevancy. Seriously, 24 editions of 100 Amazing Facts? All those “Your History” columns, not to repeat those novels, books and articles? For Rogers, for any writer, that’s an astonishing—and truly amazing—record. I felt a sense of wonder when I first browsed through his World’s Great Men of Color in the Yale Coop in September 1969, and I still feel that sense of wonder now when I think of how diligently he had to work to find his facts in the first place, with few, if any, secondary sources to guide him.
Discerning black historians of Rogers’ day also recognized his unique contributions to the field, and to the black popular imagination. For instance, in his foreword to The World and Africa (1965), the rigorous scholar Du Bois wrote this:
I have learned much from James A. Rogers. Rogers is an un-trained American Negro writer who has done his work under great difficulty without funds and at much personal sacrifice. But no man living has revealed so many important facts about the Negro race as has Rogers. His mistakes are many and his background narrow, but he is a true historical student.
As Asukile notes, in evaluating Sex and Race in the Journal of Negro History in 1943, Carter G. Woodson (whose efforts culminated in Black History Month) wrote this:
The public is deeply indebted to J.A. Rogers for the sacrifices which he has made in unearthing the facts of race admixture in this country and abroad. He has visited practically all parts of the civilized world where he has gone as a newspaper correspondent, and from time to time he has delved into the past and brought out things which are startling.
And G.K. Osei of Ghana, in his book The African (1971), wrote: “I am greatly indebted to the late J. A. Rogers who did more than any other Negro to correct the wrong image of the African.”
Last but not least, Rogers deserves an A for his courage in speaking out, even when it was impolitic or dangerous. And he didn’t shrink from criticizing his own people either. For example, riding in a Jim Crow car through Tennessee in 1936, Rogers said he was appalled to see his fellow black passengers fall all over themselves thanking the train staff for handing out the day’s sports sheet: “When I wrote the ‘100 Amazing Facts About the Negro,’ I certainly omitted one of the most amazing of all,” Rogers wrote, “namely the Negro’s lack of self-respect.”
At the same time, he didn’t miss an opportunity to criticize America’s white politicians for moving too slowly on civil rights or (in the case of President John F. Kennedy) awarding foreign aid while ignoring the plight of black people at home. And to the very end, Rogers was a vocal supporter of reparations for the descendants of the slaves.
Death and Legacy
Rogers died doing what he loved: researching black history. After having a stroke on an expedition to Washington, D.C., Rogers passed away at St. Clare’s Hospital in New York on March 26, 1966, at age 85. He was buried at Ferncliff Cemetery in Westchester County, N.Y. His widow, Helga Rogers-Andrews, a former translator in the German government whom Rogers had married in 1957, heroically kept the story of this very private man, and his many books, alive until her own death in 2013.
Generations of scholars, teachers and students are the beneficiaries of Joel A. Rogers’ remarkable historical discoveries. As John Ralph Willis wrote in the New York Times in 1973, Rogers “brought African biography out of the backwater of world literature, and he removed the ‘Great Undiscussable’ of sex-race as a formidable taboo for professional review.” How I would have loved to share with him all we are learning about race and genetics in science labs around the world today. Were he still with us, I have no doubt that he would have achieved rock-star status as a blogger for some cutting-edge news site. After all, Rogers was the black version of BuzzFeed 75 years before it existed, and you can be sure we would’ve snagged him for The Root.
The best way to honor him, I think, is to follow his example by taking nothing we are taught for granted; to be ever curious, open, and alive; to hold ourselves to task for being too easily impressed by what is handed to us; and never to forget that everyone has an amazing fact within. The spirit of this retro series, 100 Amazing Facts About the Negro, which we’ve enjoyed since Fact No. 1, “How Many Slaves Landed in the US?” on Oct. 15, 2012, was best summed up by Rogers himself in his beloved Pittsburgh Courier on Oct. 24, 1964: “My knowledge of Negro history made my spirit as a human being soar still higher. So will it, I am sure, all who feel that fullest citizenship rights are their due.”
Thank you, Joel A. Rogers. Because of you, the field of black history has never been stronger, and (to paraphrase Maya) “still, it rises.” And thank you, dear readers, for journeying with me each week from Fact No. 1 to Fact No. 100 these past two years. May the facts of our people’s long and noble history never cease to amaze you.
In loving tribute,
Henry Louis Gates Jr.
As always, you can find more “Amazing Facts About the Negro” on The Root.
Henry Louis Gates Jr. is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and founding director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University. He is also editor-in-chief of The Root. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.