Colleen Harris, the First Black Member of the Royal Household, Recalls Her Years Working With King Charles III

Prince Charles at Highgrove in 1986.nbsp
Prince Charles at Highgrove in 1986. Photo: Getty Images

It’s funny to recall now that I first met His Majesty King Charles III, then Prince of Wales, in an echoing Piccadilly outpost of the British Museum, where I worked as a press officer during the 1980s. He loves anthropology, having studied it at Cambridge, and he had come to see the Asante gold on a private visit. Many years later, in a twist of fate, His Royal Highness would hire me as his press secretary—the first Black member of the Royal Household—after a complete hash of an interview in a terribly grand room at St James’s Palace, where I nervously spilled tea all over myself and Prince Charles politely ignored it. In fact, I expect he found it hilarious. Over the five years that I worked with him, he often laughed with me about just such “mistakes” made by myself and others.

Truthfully, I joined his team at a difficult moment. Diana, Princess of Wales, had died the year before, and the public felt angry with him no matter what he did. There is no defined constitutional role for the Prince of Wales, and he realized it would be decades before he became king, decades that he insisted on using productively. He already felt passionate about topics considered niche in 1998 and essential in 2023, including sustainability and diversity, and set about addressing them—whether that meant raising organic crops on his Highgrove estate or conducting youth outreach through The Prince’s Trust. He also cared enormously about Princes William and Harry. You hear that members of the Royal Family are different—that their parenting style is cold and distant—but I witnessed first-hand the affection and closeness between His Royal Highness and his sons.

In many ways, it reminded me of my childhood. I came from a different background from the aristocratic young ladies who worked for me at the Palace, girls with Horse & Hound and Country Life subscriptions, who’d been part of that world far longer than I had. While my presence at St James’s ruffled some feathers, I never questioned my right to be there. My parents had emigrated from Guyana, a former colony, in the ’50s to work for the NHS, and both displayed pride for their Queen. The majority of Brits can remember one verse of the National Anthem—in the Caribbean, most people can sing it all. I still have the memorabilia that my mother bought in honor of Charles and Diana’s wedding in 1981. My family instilled a sense of duty in me and expected me to do my part for my country—and, critically, for the UK to support me in return.

Colleen Harris at Buckingham Palace after receiving the Royal Victorian Order from King Charles III, then the Prince of Wales.


I sometimes wonder whether I should have asked myself more questions about the Royal Family’s colonialist history before I made my way beneath the arches of St James’s for the first time, but I was focused on doing a good job for both the prince and my parents. Before I became press secretary for His Royal Highness, I had worked in public relations for London museums, followed by more than two decades in various state departments. In every role, I had been a novelty. When I first joined government communications, I became the only Black person working in PR across the entire British government. I remember once arriving late to a meeting, and a senior civil servant asked me to fetch more milk for the tea, assuming I worked in catering. It wasn’t an isolated incident.

What I did do at the Palace, though, is push for change from within—and, happily, I had the full support of the Prince of Wales. Right away, he gave me a senior title and made me a member of the Royal Household, granting me a certain status and ensuring I met and had the approval of the Queen, whom he adored. One of our first projects together was honoring the 50th anniversary of the Windrush migration, based on Trevor and Mike Phillips’s book, which brought the story of the 492 people who traveled from the Caribbean to the public’s attention. It set the tone for so much of our work together, with the now King forever searching for ways to elevate those who had been marginalized.

King Charles may no longer be able to speak as freely, but his principles—and his sense of devotion and generosity—will serve him well in the years ahead. His coronation will take place in a different world from the one the Queen inherited in 1952, and the realm will only change further as time goes by. The Asante gold that he came to see at the British Museum all those years ago may well be returned to Ghana, and while the Commonwealth may help to foster international cooperation, it is also a legacy of the Empire—one that many justifiably struggle to accept. Yet, it speaks volumes that, when Barbados became a republic in 2021, it was Prince Charles who joined Prime Minister Mia Mottley in Bridgetown for the celebrations. It is a first step in a complicated road that the King will have to navigate—balancing reverence for Her Majesty’s legacy with an openness to creating a better future for all people. I, for one, believe he’s more than up to the task.