Joel Augustus Rogers was born in Negril in 1880, or 1883. According to most accounts he was the son of Samuel and Emily Rogers, and his father was a schoolmaster who had to raise his large family of 11 children alone, after his wife’s death.Rogers would certainly have received a conventional Jamaican elementary education of the time, which would have equipped him especially with an excellent grasp of Standard English. He also recorded having been indoctrinated as a child with the idea of the inferiority of Black people, though he grew up among Black Jamaicans who were physicians and lawyers, graduates of the best Canadian, English and Scottish Universities." It is stated in some accounts that he spent four years in the army, which one would imagine would mean in the British West India Regiment, in which many other young Jamaican men enrolled.
In 1906 he left Jamaica for the USA, arriving in New York on July 23, as the Ellis Island records show; in 1917 he became an American citizen. He lived at first in Chicago, and later in New York, at 37 Morningside Avenue in Harlem, where he had his extensive library and was visited by those who were interested in his work. In his early years in the USA he worked as a Pullman porter, which gave him a broad knowledge of the country, including having to pay the White conductor to borrow library books for him in segregated states. He is also said to have studied art in Chicago, and to have been stimulated by contacts in that city to begin his study of Black history. After working perhaps as a teacher and in a brokerage firm, by the 1920s he had started on a career as a journalist, writing especially for the Amsterdam News, a leading Black newspaper, published in Harlem. He also wrote for other publications such as the magazine The Messenger.
From the mid-1920s on he travelled widely in Europe and Africa doing research in museums and libraries, acquiring in the process a good knowledge of French, Spanish, Portuguese and German. In 1930 he was in Addis Ababa representing the Amsterdam News at the coronation of Haile Selassie. About this time he began his long connection with the important Black newspaper the Pittsburgh Courier, being the paper’s war correspondent in Ethiopia during the Italian invasion in 1935-6. One of Rogers' most influential contributions to the Courier was the educational comic strip entitled ‘Your History’ which presented the readers with the results of his researches into the history and achievements of people of African ancestry over time, all over the world.