For years now, the Virginia Museum of History & Culture has been taking steps to become a more inclusive institution, moving past its stigma as the old Virginia Historical Society that once supported the Confederacy through war bonds. Roanoke native Joseph Rogers is a big part of the change happening there today.
Rogers’ parents have worked for the National Park Service for more than 30 years. He’s been doing living history programs since he was 3 years old, he says. He is a descendant of James Apostle Fields, who was enslaved in Hanover County and escaped to earn his law degree and be elected to Virginia’s General Assembly.
“James was elected in the 1889 class, which had the most voter suppression … It was the year that the conservative legislature accepted the Lee Monument,” Rogers says. “He’s been very inspirational to me … even after the gerrymandering, intimidation and suppression, he continued to be a prominent lawyer, a teacher and educator and member of his local community in such a way that, when he died in 53, he was well respected and his legacy lived on.”
After moving to Richmond in 2014, Rogers became involved with the American Civil War Museum, where he was education programs manager and connected programming with public schools. He also began community organizing with the Virginia Defenders for Freedom, Justice and Equality, doing programs around the annual Gabriel gathering event and tours of the Shockoe Bottom area; and he was an anchor for its prisoners support committee. In 2020, he even ran for the 7th District City Council seat (and we think he should consider politics again in the future, he’s inspiring in conversation).
Last December, Rogers took his new job at VMHC, which he says merged two of his greatest passions.
“These aspects of community organization and museum and historical work have been two things that, until this point, I’ve had in separate positions,” he explains. “This allows me to marry both parts together and really bring together the history, the activism, the engagement, and be a little more holistic in how we address history and engagement of the community.”
Rogers says the museum is changing for the better and he’s gotten nothing but love from the staff and its partners. “We’re more diverse with the stories we tell, improving cooperation and work with the rest of the state, and building up partnerships with different ethnic identifying groups and geographic regions. Telling the whole story of Virginia and what it looks like today, raising all those stories to prominence.” His own job is to facilitate those conversations and let the community know “all people are welcome and can see themselves in our history.” Coming up, the museum will have a grand reopening in mid-May to debut 13 new exhibitions, a permanent exhibition “Our Commonwealth,” as well as a family gallery, he notes.
Rogers is especially proud of his work with the Virginia Defenders in Shockoe Bottom, he says, helping to get the city to recognize and appropriate funds for the Heritage Campus footprint to memorialize the slave trade in Richmond. “Helping change the narrative from one of death and destruction to one of liberation, where Black [people] were freed. I’m really glad to be able to continue to play a role in that.”
Speaking of the Defenders, he just kicked back off the Defenders Radio Hour with co-host Ana Edwards on WRIR 97.3, usually the fourth Thursday of the month – though he says he’s on hiatus this month because he’s getting married on the 26th. Congrats to the happy couple! Have a Top 40 under 40 recognition while you’re at it, you earned it.