Former N.H. state Rep. Rogers Johnson, who worked for decades to improve diversity, racial equity, and civil rights in New Hampshire, died on Thursday. He was 62.
Among his many official roles, Johnson chaired the Governor's Advisory Council on Diversity and Inclusion and was president of the Seacoast NAACP. He also served on the State Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.
Johnson was the first Black lawmaker to serve as House Majority Whip in the New Hampshire House of Representatives, after he was elected from Stratham and served from 2001 to 2006.
A Republican with strong opinions and a fierce commitment to equality, diversity, and civil conversation, Johnson was known for working with members of both parties.
“He was not wedded to party or personality, but wedded to his own principles and sense of justice,” recalled Woullard Lett, a member of the Manchester NAACP.
“He was one of the most intelligent people I knew in the legislature,” said Kingston state Rep. Kenneth Weyler. “He was an ideal legislator. He was smooth; he could present his ideas; and he didn’t talk about something he hadn’t studied about.”
In 2006, Johnson joined the U.S. Department of Education as the Director of Intergovernmental Affairs under President George W. Bush. James McKim, president of the Manchester NAACP, said Johnson’s time in D.C. deepened his understanding of how policy could translate to progress.
“He really understood how state government worked,” McKim remembered. “He knew how to get to know the people who are in positions in power, and get to know them not just from the perspective of them being in a position of power, but get to know them as people, and that’s why he was so respected.”
Born in Rye, New York, Johnson attended Phillips Exeter Academy. He moved back to New Hampshire after working as an insurance consultant and receiving his Masters in Health Administration from the University of New Hampshire.
“He loved New Hampshire,” says Dottie Morris, who served with Johnson on the state’s Advisory Council on Diversity and Inclusion and on the recently-formed COVID-19 Equity Response Team. “He really believed that by diversifying New Hampshire, we would be a greater state.”
Johnson sometimes clashed with other members of the NAACP and racial justice justice advocates, some of whom disagreed with his politics, and his willingness to collaborate with law enforcement and others with diverging viewpoints.
Ahni Malachi, the executive director at the New Hampshire Commission for Human Rights, said Johnson’s approach to change was through open dialogue.
“You don’t have to have the buzzwords or lingo; you just talk one on one,” she said. “That’s really how you effect change: when you can have those personal conversations and you know that you’re heard, regardless of where you sit on the topic.”
This summer, Johnson served with Malachi on the Governor’s Commission on Law Enforcement Accountability, Community and Transparency (LEACT), which formed after the police killing of George Floyd.
Malachi said he brought his years of experience working in government to the commission.
“He wanted to make sure that we were clear: if there are recommendations you’re making and they have a price tag, this is what is going to happen,” she says. “Think clearly and be sober about what you’re doing, because it may not happen, depending on the price tag or the will of the legislators.”
Eddie Edwards, a former police chief who also served on the commission, said Rogers Johnson paved the way for Black politicians like himself in New Hampshire.
“I remember the first time I saw him as an elected official...I was surprised, and I found a level of comfort in seeing him,” he remembers.
Johnson’s colleagues and friends say his proudest achievement was his family: his wife Poppy, and his sons Jay and Jeremy. He was often seen with his sons at football and lacrosse games at his alma mater, Phillips Exeter Academy. And colleagues say every time he spoke of his sons, he couldn’t help but smile.
“Because of them, he was motivated to make sure we had a world that could be a world they could live in,” said Dottie Morris.
On Twitter, members of BLM Seacoast wrote: “[Rogers] was a force in the racial justice movement nationally & here in NH. He was a mentor to us & to the younger generations in this movement. We will treasure the time we had with him & his work will not be forgotten.”
On Friday, Governor Chris Sununu wrote that Johnson was a “great friend.”
“He was always laser-focused on making New Hampshire a more diverse and equitable state, and thanks to his tireless leadership and advocacy over these last few years, New Hampshire has made tremendous strides," Sununu said.