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100 Amazing Facts About the Negro

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The first edition of Joel Augustus Rogers’s now legendary 100 Amazing Facts About the Negro with Complete Proof, published in 1934, was billed as “A Negro ‘Believe It or Not.’” Rogers’s little book was priceless because he was delivering enlightenment and pride, steeped in historical research, to a people too long starved on the lie that they were worth nothing. For African Americans of the Jim Crow era, Rogers’s was their first black history teacher. But Rogers was not always shy about embellishing the “facts” and minimizing ambiguity; neither was he above shock journalism now and then.

With élan and erudition—and with winning enthusiasm—Henry Louis Gates, Jr. gives us a corrective yet loving homage to Roger’s work. Relying on the latest scholarship, Gates leads us on a romp through African, diasporic, and African-American history in question-and-answer format. Among the one hundred questions: Who were Africa’s first ambassadors to Europe? Who was the first black president in North America? Did Lincoln really free the slaves? Who was history’s wealthiest person? What percentage of white Americans have recent African ancestry? Why did free black people living in the South before the end of the Civil War stay there? Who was the first black head of state in modern Western history? Where was the first Underground Railroad? Who was the first black American woman to be a self-made millionaire? Which black man made many of our favorite household products better?

Here is a surprising, inspiring, sometimes boldly mischievous—all the while highly instructive and entertaining—compendium of historical curiosities intended to illuminate the sheer complexity and diversity of being “Negro” in the world.

(With full-color illustrations throughout.)

ISBN-13: 9780307908711

Media Type: Hardcover

Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group

Publication Date: 10-24-2017

Pages: 496

Product Dimensions: 6.50(w) x 9.20(h) x 1.60(d)

HENRY LOUIS GATES, JR., is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University. An award-winning filmmaker, literary scholar, journalist, cultural critic, and institution builder, Professor Gates has authored or coauthored twenty-one books and created seventeen documentary films, including Wonders of the African World, African American Lives, Faces of America, Black in Latin America, Black American Since MLK: And Still I Rise, and Finding Your Roots, whose fourth season in currently in production with PBS. His six-part PBS documentary, The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross—which he wrote, executive produced, and hosted—earned an Emmy Award for Outstanding Historical Program–Long Form, as well as a Peabody Award, and Alfred I. DuPont-Columbia University Award, and an NAACP Image Award. Gate’s latest film is the six-hour PBS documentary Africa’s Great Civilizations.

Read an Excerpt


Which journalist was among the first to bring black history facts to the masses?

For black families in the middle of the twentieth century, “Mr. Rog­ers” was a columnist for the legendary Pittsburgh Courier, and his pithy and always intriguing tidbits of African and African-American history armed them with facts about the black experience that seemed more like fantasies. Since students 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 had.

The first edition of his now legendary 100 Amazing Facts About the Negro with Complete Proof, published in 1957, was billed as “A Negro ‘Believe It or Not,’ ” signifying on Robert Ripley’s brain-bending series that had pre­miered in the New York Globe in October 1919. Rogers’s little book was priceless because 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 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 his mind.

Did he sometimes embellish what he had found? Yes; he wasn’t above shock journalism. Did he miss key details? Absolutely. His style was brief and to the point, using a minimum of words and ambiguity so that the “facts” could speak for themselves.

Critics skeptical of Rogers’s style dismissed him as a “vindicationist” for an aggrieved race, as Thabiti Asukile notes. And many of the subsequent ninety-nine chapters in this book will put Rogers’s amazing facts to the test. Although he didn’t bat a thousand, he consistently and tantaliz­ingly raised questions about history that stimulated others to dig deeper. But he 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.


Joel Augustus Rogers was born in Negril, Jamaica, on September 6, 1880, to Samuel and Emily (Johnstone) Rogers. When university study was precluded in the Caribbean, 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, he was told he could pass for Cuban, but when he emigrated to the United States in 1906, it became clear that under the old one-drop rule, he was black. Thus he was relegated to the hard-luck side of the color line, a fact made all too clear when he was dissed at a restaurant in New York’s Times Square.

After visiting Boston, Rogers made his way westward to Chicago, where the University of Chicago denied him admission because, in Asukile’s words, “he did not possess a high school diploma.” From then on, Rogers knew that whatever he accomplished in life as a man of letters would have to be done without degrees.


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. Griffith 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.

Rogers’s game plan was simple: proudly claim for the black race any man, woman, or child, including gods and goddesses, in the pages and paintings of history who manifested traces of African or “Negroid” ances­try. Textbook examples were the Russian novelist Alexander Pushkin and Alessandro de’ Medici, as well as Gen. Thomas-Alexandre Dumas and Alexandre Dumas. Rogers poked as much as he prodded, while restoring to greatness lost heroes of the black experience, among them Saint Mau­rice, Benjamin Banneker, Toussaint Louverture, Paul Cuffee, Cetshwayo, and various Congressional Medal of Honor recipients.

Rogers waged his battle against Jim Crow on three broad fronts: his­tory, genealogy, and genetics, as the historian W. Burghardt Turner pointed out in 1975. 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. If anything, Turner explained, 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.


Rogers did all this virtually by himself. No mainstream publisher would touch his books, so he released them through his own imprint: the J. A. Rogers Historical Research Society. Making matters more difficult, he had no grants or foundation support to speak of and no lectureships or pro­fessorships to sustain him. Except for a three-hundred-dollar infusion from journalist H. L. Mencken, he paid his own way.

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, his rise was quick. 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 the New York Amsterdam News that Rogers made two critical trips abroad in the 1920s.

The world was suddenly different after the 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 just as fascinated by the written word as he was by the visual arts. (It helped that he spoke sev­eral languages.) For his efforts, as Asukile writes, 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.

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. Rogers’s series ran from 1934 all the way to 1966 (though from 1962 on it was called “Facts About the Negro”).


Rogers died doing what he loved: researching black history. After having a stroke on an expedition to Washington, D.C., he passed away at St. Clare’s Hospital in New York on March 26, 1966, at eighty-five. He was buried at Ferncliff Cemetery in Westchester County, New York. 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’s remarkable historical discoveries.

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; and to take ourselves to task for being too easily impressed by what is handed to us. This book, 100 Amazing Facts About the Negro, is an homage to Rogers’s work. Thank you, Joel A. Rogers. Because of you, the field of black history has never been stronger.

Table of Contents

1. Which journalist was among the first to bring black history facts to the masses? 3
2. How many Africans were taken to the United States during the entire history of the slave trade? 9
3. Who was the first African to arrive in America? 10
4. Who was the first black saint? 12
5. Who was the first black president in North America? 14
6. Who were Africa’s first ambassadors to Europe? 16
7. Who was the first black explorer of the North American Southwest? 18
8. Which slave literally wrote his way to freedom? 20
9. What was the first black town in North America? 23
10. Who was George Washington’s runaway slave? 25
11. Who was the first black person in the United States to lead a “back to Africa” effort? 28
12. Who was the first black person to see the baby Jesus? 31
13. Where was the first black town in what is now the United States? 34
14. What happened to the “forty acres and a mule” that former slaves were promised? 37
15. Were slaves actually eaten by dogs? 40
16. Where was the first Underground Railroad? 44
17. What was the second Middle Passage? 46
18. How much did the cotton industry shape American history and the lives of enslaved Africans? 48
19. How much African ancestry does the average African American have? 51
20. Who originated the concept of the “talented tenth” black leadership class? 54
21. Who was the first African-American fighter pilot? 57
22. Did black people own slaves? If so, why? 60
23. How did Harriet Tubman become a legend? 65
24. When did black literature begin to address African-American sexuality? 69
25. Is most of what we believe about the Underground Railroad true? 73
26. Did Russia’s Peter the Great adopt an African man as his son? 77
27. Were Alexander Pushkin’s African roots important to him? 80
28. Was Jackie Robinson court-martialed? 84
29. What were the largest slave rebellions in America? 88
30. What were the biggest acts of betrayal within the enslaved community? 93
31. What is one of the most novel ways a slave devised to escape bondage? 98
32. Who was the first black head of state in modern Western history? 102
33. Were there any successful slavery escapes by sea? 107
34. How was black support enlisted for World War II, when the armed services were segregated? 112
35. How did the Black Sambo memorabilia that is collected today come to be? 117
36. Who was Plessy in the Plessy v. Ferguson Supreme Court case? 121
37. What is Juneteenth? 126
38. Who was the first black American woman to be a self-made millionaire? 130
39. Did black combatants fight in the Battle of Gettysburg? 135
40. Before Emancipation, didn’t most free blacks live in the northern half of America? 140
41. Why did free black people living in the South before the end of the Civil War stay there? 145
42. How did the son of a former slave defy the color bar to become a wealthy fixture of European nightlife during the Jazz Age? 149
43. Which massacre resulted in a Supreme Court decision limiting the federal government’s ability to protect black Americans from racial targeting? 154
44. Which episode of racial violence destroyed the community known as the “Black Wall Street”? 159
45. How could integrating information about the fight for civil rights into K–12 curricula better educate our children and foster a real conversation on race? 164
46. Which civil rights leader and gay barrier-breaker was kept in the shadows by the civil rights movement establishment? 167
47. Did Martin Luther King, Jr., improvise in the “Dream” speech? 172
48. Which enslaved African managed to press his case for freedom all the way to the White House? 177
49. Who was history’s wealthiest person? 182
50. Who was the first black poet in the Western world? 186
51. Who was the founder of Chicago? 190
52. What’s the real story of the legendary mixed-race slave trader Joel Rogers called “Mongo John”? 194
53. How did the story of Solomon Northup, the author of Twelve Years a Slave, first become public? 199
54. Who was the first black man to serve in the U.S. Senate? 203
55. Which black governor was almost a senator? 208
56. Which regiment of black soldiers returning after World War I received a hero’s welcome in New York City? 213
57. Who were the African Americans in the Kennedy administration? 218
58. When did African-American women hit their stride in professional achievement? 222
59. Who were the black passengers on the doomed Titanic voyage? 227
60. Which former slave became a deputy U.S. marshal and a renowned symbol of law and order in the Wild West? 231
61. Who were the black people killed in the raid on Harpers Ferry? 236
62. What myth of eternal youth in Africa inspired Europeans for centuries? 241
63. How did black soldiers come to fight in the American Civil War? 246
64. Which black man engaged a Founding Father in a debate about racial equality? 251
65. How were Martin Luther King, Jr., and Nelson Mandela linked? 256
66. Did Lincoln really free the slaves? 261
67. How did Black History Month come into being? 266
68. What was the original color of the mythical beauty Andromeda? 270
69. How often were enslaved Americans able to tell their stories? 274
70. What started the black newspaper industry in America? 278
71. What percentage of white Americans have recent African ancestry? 283
72. Who was the first American-born black person to draw crowds using sleight of hand—and voice? 286
73. Who was the first black actor to play the role of Shakespeare’s tortured Moor? 290
74. Who was the patron saint of African slaves and their descendants? 295
75. Was a black slave to blame for the Salem witch trials? 300
76. What’s the truth about many African-American families having a Native American ancestor? 305
77. Which pioneering play introduced mainstream American audiences to the dynamics undergirding the civil rights movement? 310
78. What role did Lord Mansfield’s mixed-race great-niece, Dido Elizabeth Belle, play in his famous decision on slavery in England? 314
79. Who was the first African-American writer to investigate and report the wrongdoings of a world leader? 318
80. Who were the first notable African Americans who stepped into America’s institutions of higher learning? 322
81. What was Freedom’s Fort, and how does it relate to Memorial Day? 326
82. Which French general under Napoléon had African ancestry and was a forebear to two French literary greats? 332
83. Which famous nineteenth-century French author had African ancestry? 337
84. Which Zulu king led his men to victory over British invaders and mounted warfare that killed a French “prince”? 341
85. Why was the summer of 1964 pivotal in the fight for civil rights? 346
86. Which civil rights warrior received numerous telephone calls from the U.S. president during the fight to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964? 351
87. What happened to Argentina’s black population? 356
88. Which event in black history took place in what is now Iraq? 360
89. Did black people engage in piracy during its heyday in the Americas? 365
90. How did the shattering of the color barrier for Rhodes scholarships forever change the black arts movement? 370
91. Which black female poet owned a garden house that became a popular home-away-from-home down south for the leading lights of the Harlem Renaissance? 375
92. When President Abraham Lincoln met with free black leaders in 1862, what did he propose? 380
93. Which black justices broke the color barrier at the federal court level? 385
94. Who buried the war dead from the Battle of Gettysburg? 390
95. What did Malcolm X do at Oxford University? 394
96. Which black man made many of our favorite household products better? 398
97. Which twentieth-century black actor played roles of all races during a time when Hollywood had few roles for black actors? 401
98. Who were the first black boxing champions? 406
99. Who were the key scholars responsible for the discipline of black history? 411
100. What are the most important facts to know about American slavery? 416

Acknowledgments 423
Notes 425
Index 453
Illustration Credits 475