By Jamie Jensen
I sat down this month with my friend Ingraham Taylor to catch up. She and I met when we were on the Police Review Committee in 2020, and our initial relationship was forged via Zoom. I am an educator, and she is a social worker and our mutual love for youth and the importance of strong programming that inspires and supports youth was shared from the start.
Ingraham grew up in Rye and was a member of the Rye High School class of 1972. I came to town in 2010, when my now 26-year-old daughter was entering Rye High. Ingraham has great stories to tell about the community – how its changed and how it is still the same. She always has something interesting to share about her younger years in the town I have learned to love. She is a single mother, actively engaged grandmother, and a community volunteer who now sits on the Human Rights Commission. Ingraham is also a voice of reason and compassion as she helps our mostly white town learn our history and engage in important conversations about diversity, equity, and inclusion.
Ingraham did not need to convince me to write about native-born Rogers Johnson, who died in 2020 at the age of 62 and is on the way to being permanently honored for his commitment to service. His portrait has been commissioned and the process is underway for it to hang on the walls of the New Hampshire Statehouse. Here is his story, taken mostly from publicly available news sources.
As his 2020 obituary reads, Rogers came from “humble beginnings”. He was the youngest of six brothers and two sisters and the first to be born above the Mason-Dixon Line. His family settled in Rye in the late 1950s – on Cedar Place, which runs parallel to Midland Avenue and is right down the street from the Rye Recreation fields. While many of us know that Rye is the hometown of many celebrated and wealthy white families, few of us know that the Johnsons, along with their cousins, the Kennedys, were among the few African American families that lived in more modest homes back then. The fields in Rye were a favorite place for Rogers Johnson and his many cousins. They were all good athletes. They played football and baseball. And Rogers was the first African American to play for the Rye High School Hockey team. These boys were called “The Presidential Backfield” whenever they played sports in the area.
According to Ingraham, who remembers Rogers as her nephew’s good friend, he was special. He was going places. Though he started at Rye High, he graduated from Philips Exeter Academy and went on to earn a degree from Ohio Wesleyan University. His career in the private sector was multi-faceted and impressive. He worked in both the insurance and consulting fields and completing a Master’s in Public Health Administration in 1999 in his new home state of New Hampshire.
Eventually, Rogers, described as a great negotiator and civically minded resident, decided to run for the office of state representative. He won and served his district in Stratham, N.H. from 2001 to 2006. During his tenure, he was selected as the Republican House Majority Whip, the first African American to hold this position in New Hampshire’s history. His leadership was clearly recognized, and in 2006, President George W. Bush asked him to serve in the U.S. Department of Education as the Director of Intergovernmental Affairs.
Johnson’s service did not end when he left government. He was Treasurer of the New England Area Conference of the NAACP, representing seventeen NAACP branches in five New England states as well as the President of the Portsmouth Branch. In 2014, Johnson was awarded the Seacoast NAACP’s Freedom Fighter Award for his service. In the last years of his life, he served as Chair of the Governor’s Advisory Council on Diversity and Inclusion, and as a member of the governor’s Covid-19 Equity Response Team and the Commission on Law Enforcement Accountability, Community, and Transparency.
According to his family, Rogers Johnson, the ball player and young Black man from Rye who succeeded, also worked tirelessly to help others. He understood that vulnerable populations in his state needed power to resolve issues that matter. He worked to right the wrongs of the past and do his best to improve local law enforcement, education, and housing for those who did not have a voice in New Hampshire.
A January editorial by Andrew Vrees, printed online from WMUR ABC news, makes the case for this honor. “Johnson died in 2020, leaving behind a legacy of building community. This week, state lawmakers approved an initial bill that would honor Johnson and the work he did by commissioning his portrait. Johnson would be the first image of a person of color to grace the halls of the New Hampshire State House and would join portraits of other historic figures like New Hampshire Revolutionary War Gen. John Stark and religious pioneer Mary Baker Eddy.” He goes on to say, “There are a lot of hurdles to get a portrait on the walls of the State House, and there are plenty of ways this could get sidelined. It must be signed off by the Senate, the House, the governor, a Joint Legislative Historical Committee, and the governor’s Executive Council. These things can take a long time. This one should not.” He continued, “There is no question that the time is now to recognize a person of color with one of the state’s highest honors.”
If the Granite State believes Rogers Johnson’s time on this earth made a difference for so many, it’s well past the time that Rye supports the telling of stories of Black Americans like Rogers Johnson.