Lettie Hamlett Rogers, who both attended and taught at Woman’s College (now UNC Greensboro), led an extraordinary and varied life, often using her experiences to fuel her writings. Rogers was born in Suzhou (or Soochow), China, on September 16, 1917, to the missionaries Reverend P.W. Hamlett and Mrs. Lettie Hamlett.
She spent her childhood in both China and Japan, learning to speak Chinese before she learned to speak English. From early in her life, Rogers experienced hardship and strife. Rogers experienced the Chinese civil wars during 1925 and 1927 as a refugee in Japan. She was separated from her father, who stayed in China as one of the few remaining missionaries.
Rogers attended Shanghai American School before moving to the United States to attend Woman’s College. Rogers graduated from Woman’s College in 1940 with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Sociology. Like her parents, Rogers spent some time in China teaching and was classified as a missionary. She then joined the faculty of the University as an assistant professor in the Sociology Department in 1941.
During her time teaching in the Sociology Department, Rogers became increasingly dedicated to her writing. After suffering a bout of influenza in 1942, she spent her lengthy recovery reading numerous mystery novels. Rogers declared she could produce better stories and tried her hand at writing mysteries. In additional to her battle with influenza, Rogers was also affected by World War II. Rogers’ parents and other missionaries were imprisoned in Japan, but were exchanged for Japanese prisoners in the United States in 1942.
Despite all of the hardships she faced in 1942, she kept working on her mystery story. Her first mystery was unpublished, but she enrolled in a writing course with Hiram Hayden at Woman’s College in 1943. That same year, she left her position at Woman’s College to dedicate herself full-time to her writing.
Rogers was a published writer throughout most of her adulthood, beginning her writing career with an article on China in Asia magazine in 1944. Rogers went on to publish prolifically, producing four novels, including South of Heaven, The Storm Cloud, Landscape of the Heart, and Birthright.
During her literary career, Rogers returned to Woman’s College, joining the English faculty in 1948. Rogers was instrumental in developing a strong writing program at Woman’s College.
However, Rogers resigned from her position in 1955 due to the controversial censure of the staff of the Coraddi, the art and literary magazine of Woman’s College, over a Fall 1954 issue. Rogers, along with several other faculty/staff, resigned in protest of the censure of the Coraddi staff for publishing a pen and ink drawing of a nude man. (To read more about the controversy, read our Spartan Stories post here.)
Despite leaving the English department at Woman’s College, Rogers continued writing. Many of her novels drew from her own life experience, perhaps none more so than her debut novel, South of Heaven. The novel focused on familiar territory for Rogers – a child of Western heritage who was living in China, struggling to find her place in the world. Other novels focused on China between 1925-1927, American mental hospitals, and a Southern town much like her residence in Morganton, N.C.
All of Rogers’ novels were met with some acclaim. Her last novel, Birthright, was issued as the April book by the Literary Guild and was well-received critically.
Rogers had been sick of several years, undergoing treatments for cancer in New York City at Mount Sinai Hospital when Birthrightwas published. Rogers passed away in 1957 at the age of 39, after a lengthy battle with cancer. She was buried in Morganton, N.C.
Although Rogers died at a tragically early age, she accomplished a great deal as a student, educator, missionary, and author. Her impact on UNC Greensboro and North Carolina literature are pronounced.
The Lettie Hamlett Rogers Papers are housed in the Martha Blakeney Hodges Special Collections and University Archives (SCUA). Rogers donated her papers the the University in the 1950s. If you would like to learn more about Rogers or the collection, visit the finding aid for the collection here.
By Patrick Dollar