Holly, James T.

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Holly, James T.

March 13, 1911

Emigrationist and missionary James Theodore Holly was born to free parents in a free black settlement in Washington, D.C. At fourteen, the family moved to Brooklyn, New York, where Holly learned shoemaking under the direction of his father. In 1848 he began working as a clerk for Lewis Tappan, the renowned abolitionist, who furthered his interest in the antislavery movement.

In 1851, in reaction to the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, Holly and his wife, Charlotte, moved to Windsor, Canada. He became coeditor of Henry Bibb's newspaper, The Voice of the Fugitive, and began to encourage black emigration through his writing. Holly endorsed Bibb's controversial Refugee Home Society, a program designed by Bibb to train and rehabilitate fugitive slaves.

Holly became increasingly involved in the emigration movement. In 1854 the first National Emigration Convention was held in Cleveland, Ohio, where Holly was named a delegate and represented the National Emigration Board as its commissioner; the following year he made his first trip to Haiti. During the 1850s Holly also championed the American Colonization Society in its efforts to remove African Americans from the United States.

Holly was raised a Catholic, but in 1855 he converted from Roman Catholicism, becoming a deacon in the Protestant Episcopal Church. The following year he became a priest and moved to New Haven, Connecticut, where he served at St. Luke's Church and continued to promote the idea of emigration to Haiti. During this period he wrote his major work, Vindication of the Capacity of the Negro Race for Self-Government and Civilized Progress, which was published in 1857. Writing against the grain of American nationalism, Holly called the United States a "bastard democracy," and asserted that emigration to Haiti would provide far more personal liberty and general well-being for black men and women. Emigration would be a grand experiment in progress even in "monarchical" Haiti, Holly contended, and would demonstrate African-American capacities for political and social progress. Ironically, Holly also believed in English cultural supremacy. He was an anglophile who asserted that providence was directing black men and women in the New World in a vanguard struggle for independence and black pride that would promote European cultural ideals. His Christian expansionism and emigration plans were linked to a great respect for the developed arts and sciences of the "Anglo-American race."

In May 1861 Holly left the United States with 110 followers, made up of family and church members, and established a colony in Haiti. Yellow fever and malaria took their toll on the colony, however, and during the first year, the diseases killed his mother, his wife, their two children, and thirty-nine other members of the group. Others returned to the United States, leaving Holly with only a handful of followers. In 1862 Holly returned to the United States seeking financial assistance from the Episcopal Church to establish a mission. His request was granted.

In 1874, at Grace Church in New York City, Holly became the first African American to be consecrated bishop by the Episcopal Church. He served as head of the Orthodox Apostolic Church of Haiti, a church in communion with other Episcopal churches. He published a number of articles in the AME Church Review and continued to believe, until his death in 1911, that black Americans should emigrate to Haiti.

See also African Methodist Episcopal Church


Dean, David M. Defender of the Race. Boston: Lambeth Press, 1978.

"James T. Holly." Notable Black American Men. Detroit, Mich.: Gale, 1998.

Logan, Rayford W., and Michael R. Winston, eds. Dictionary of American Negro Biography. New York: Norton, 1982.

susan mcintosh (1996)
Updated bibliography