Pamela Roberts: Black Oxford


Oxford is one of the oldest and most prestigious universities in the world. Its alumni can be found at the top of most fields; this includes educating 26 British Prime Ministers and many more heads of states from other countries.

However, whilst there is a lot of information about the University’s proud history, it usually neglects the success of its Black scholars. Pamela Roberts, a cultural heritage practitioner, has written a new book to uncover this little explored niche in Oxford’s history. ‘Black Oxford: The Untold Stories of Oxford University's Black Scholars’ is a concise book that touches the many interesting stories of the Black alumni of the university.

Roberts’ journey to writing the book began when she wanted to do a black heritage tour around Oxford and its University. The tourism information centre was more than unhelpful as her request for information was met with:

no black people went to Oxford. All you people did back then was drive busses.”

From then on Roberts set out to challenge this ignorance by making the information available.

Astonishingly some of the people covered in the book are right in our faces, Susan Rice the current United States National Security Advisor and John Kufuor President of Ghana 2001 – 2009. These are big political figures that are recognised globally.

Roberts takes inspiration from a passage in Susan Rice’s book A History Deferred saying :

The greatest evil in omitting or misrepresenting Black history, literature, and culture in elementary or secondary education is the unmistakable message it sends to the black child...The message is ‘your history, your culture, your language and your literature are insignificant. And so are you.”

It is important that we recognise black history and the achievements of black people, because not doing so can have a profound effect on society subliminally, particularly on the psyche of young people.

The book is very readable and is aimed at people of all ages. Most importantly it exposes black youth to career paths that may seem distant and unattainable because there are not a lot of black individuals in those fields. They come from the arts, law, science, literature, politics and many more fields.

Eric Williams is a particularly intriguing character. He was the first Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago after studying History and coming first place among History students at Oxford in 1935. Despite experiencing racism in the UK, Williams triumphed against the odds in academia and politics.

The information was not easy to uncover, but Roberts was given access to the university’s resources and had great support from the families of the people she researched:

The university’s archive was a tremendous resource, and with people pointing me in the right direction, it became a very enlightening experience. I discovered that the archive shows the possibility of a black student at the university as early as 1507 but they didn’t have ethnic records and the students had Eurocentric names making it difficult to identify them conclusively.”

The earliest verifiable Black scholar was Christian Fredrick Cole who matriculated at Oxford in 1873 and became the first African to practise in an English court. Other firsts in the book include the first Rhodes Scholar Alain Locke, and the first African woman to graduate there Kofoworola Moore.

All the scholars came from diverse backgrounds and from all over the globe coming from Africa, the Caribbean and the US. Roberts says:

they all had interesting routes to Oxford. The University of the West Indies was founded in 1948 so up until that point there was a very good elite education system that was similar to Eton and Harrow, but no University for students to go to after that. Instead there was a scholarship for the best students to go to Oxford and Cambridge or Edinburgh University for medicine.”

Roberts was intrigued by how difficult it must have been for all of these scholars to leave home and experience life in Oxford. With no support networks and at times a hostile socio-political environment, it is inspiring that they managed to achieve so much.

Oxford is often bashed for its elitism and lack of black and ethnic minority student intake, but the few that manage to get in and become a success should be recognised as proof that black students can achieve given the opportunity. Roberts adds:

Oxford isn’t the only way to achieve success, but hopefully my book broadens the minds of young people and shows that no goal is unachievable. Just look at race relations a century ago, and yet there are so many success stories.”

Black people have made a great contribution to the prestige of Oxford, and the prestige of Oxford has been the platform for many great black people. ‘Black Oxford’ makes a great point of making sure the history of Oxford can be shared by everybody.

Alan Ssempebwa

The book is available on Amazon for £7.99. For more information please contact