First biography of James Arthur Harley (1873 – 1943), who was born in a poor village Antigua, went on to attend Howard, Harvard, Yale and Oxford universities, was ordained a priest in Canterbury Cathedral and was elected to public office in Leicestershire

The Adventures of a Black Edwardian Intellectual

The Story of James Arthur Harley

Pamela Roberts

“How many people studied at Harvard, Yale and Oxford and went on to be a Church of England vicar and political activist? Along the way, James Arthur Harley’s life casts light on economics and education in the late nineteenth century Caribbean, elite black life in gilded era Washington and the racism of early twentieth-century England. His was an extraordinary career that challenged stereotypes and tells untold stories. It is also a piece of fascinating historical detective work by Pamela Roberts, making it an addictive and thoroughly good read.”—Pippa Catterall, Professor of History and Policy, University of Westminster

“A fascinating and wondrously suggestive account that stimulates many critical questions about Black lives in the Edwardian Church. Roberts’ has a clear vision of the twists and turns of Harley’s life. An original and thought-provoking book.”—Dr Ralph Norman Canterbury Christs Church University

“Settling in Britain and after years of being stymied by the racism of the Anglican Church, Harley finally left and became deeply involved in politics in Leicestershire at the municipal and county levels. His growing radicalization (and popularity), especially after the 1926 General Strike, is one of the most intriguing aspects of his story.”—Professor Winston James, University of California, Irvine

Scholar, reverend, politician, and perhaps aristocrat… James Arthur Stanley Harley was certainly a polymath. Born in a poor village in the Caribbean island of Antigua, he went on to attend Howard, Harvard, Yale and Oxford universities, was ordained a priest in Canterbury Cathedral and was elected to Leicestershire County Council. He was a choirmaster, a pioneer Oxford anthropologist, a country curate and a firebrand councillor. This remarkable career was all the more extraordinary because he was black in an age – the early twentieth century – that was institutionally racist. 

Pamela Roberts’ meticulously researched book tells Harley’s hitherto unknown story from humble Antiguan childhood, through elite education in Jim Crow America to the turbulent England of World War I and the General Strike. Navigating the complex intertwining of education, religion, politics and race, his life converged with pivotal periods and events in history: the birth of the American New Negro in the 1900s, black scholars at Ivy League institutions, the heyday of Washington’s black elite and the early civil rights movement, Edwardian English society, and the Great War. Based on Harley’s letters, sermons and writings as well as contemporary accounts and later oral testimony, this is an account of an individual’s trajectory through seven decades of dramatic social change.   

Roberts’ biography reveals a man of religious conviction, who won admirers for his work as a vicar and local councillor. But Harley was also a complex and abrasive individual, who made enemies and courted controversy and scandal. Most intriguingly, he hinted at illicit aristocratic ancestry dating back to Antigua’s slave-owning past. His life, uncovered here for the first time, is full of contradictions and surprises, but above all illustrates the power and resilience of the human spirit. 

Pamela Roberts is a Fellow of the Royal Society of the Arts, Fellow of the Royal Historical Society and an Eccles Centre Visiting Fellow at the British Library. The author of Black Oxford: The Untold Stories of Oxford University’s Black Scholars, her work as Founder and Director of ‘Black Oxford Untold Stories’ (website: has raised the profile of many black scholars from the turn of the twentieth century. The author’s website can be found here:, and a blog on Harley here: Following in the footsteps of Harley | Pamela Roberts (

£20 hb

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316 pp, 30 illus

October 2022

ISBN: 9781838463069