Joel A. Rogers and the Legacy of the Five Black Presidents?

By Jennifer Parsley, Educator at Eisenhower Birthplace State Historic Site

In the 1940s and 50s, if you read Black newspapers, Joel Augustus Rogers was a reporter you knew as well as Walter Cronkite or William Shirer. He guided you through the coronation of Emperor Haile Selassie I of Ethiopia, gave you reports of the North African Front, and provided updates on the burgeoning Civil Rights movement. His lasting legacy, and a major source of his acclaim, was his popularizing of Black History, but he also made occasional missteps, including authoring The Five Negro Presidents (Dwight Eisenhower among them).

Rogers was born in Jamaica in 1880 and immigrated to the United States in 1906. He settled in Chicago, becoming a Pullman porter. Riding the rails, he was exposed to various new people and ideas, feeding into his love of knowledge. These experiences led him to publish his first book, From Superman to Man, in 1917. Centered around a debate between a Southern politician and Pullman porter, it sought to debunk the idea that Blacks were inferior, arguing that ignorance fueled racism.

This book launched a lifetime of scholarship, looking to explore and publish Black history. In the 1920s, Rogers moved to New York City and established a journalism career. He arrived at the beginning of the Harlem Renaissance, and his connections with intellectuals such as Marcus Garvey and W.E.B. DuBois influenced his works. In 1936, inspired by a lifetime of research, he launched a comic series called “Your History” with the Pittsburgh Courier.

“Your History” was a weekly comic strip that brought Black history into the home. He highlighted forgotten luminaries like Toussaint L’Ouverture and Paul Cuffee, and exposed covered stories like Thomas Jefferson’s relationship with Sally Hemmings, stories which weren’t accepted by white scholarship until the 1990s. For the first time, people could see themselves in great events.

Rogers devoted his life to traveling the world and collecting source material. His only weakness was occasionally stretching his sources too thin. One of his recognized weakest works of scholarship is the book The Five Negro Presidents. As Henry Louis Gates Jr. argued:

“While he erred on the side of excess as he peered into the proverbial woodpile, Rogers got it right an impressive amount of the time, especially considering when he was publishing his work. (At the other end of his collected works, though, stands The Five Negro Presidents, which, shall we say, would get the “Black History Wishful Thinking Prize,” hands down, were there such in existence.).”

One of the presidents Rogers argues was Black was Eisenhower through his mother, Ida Eisenhower.

Rogers’ sole evidence that Ida Eisenhower was Black is based on an 1885 photograph of her. He argues that her features appear Black, which shows Black ancestry. This argument strongly relies on aspects of physiognomy, a debunked theory linked with scientific racism, that argues you can tell peoples’ personalities and characters through their faces. We’re lucky to have access to modern databases that Rogers could have only dreamed about, and Ida Eisenhower’s ancestry shows no evidence of Black ancestry.

In Rogers’ 1966 obituary in Jet magazine, scholar Lerone Bennet Jr argued that Rogers’ legacy was “...the carrying of the history of black people to the masses long before it was popular. He got it to people in a form they would read and made an impact on the mass mind that professional historians had not made.” Despite recognized issues with sources, Rogers’ quest to illuminate Black history makes him a founding historian amongst the ranks of W.E.B. DuBois and Carter G. Woodson. 

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  • Author, journalist and historian J.A. Rogers. Photo by Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Photographs and Prints Division, The New York Public Library. (1936).