Phoebe Alison Roaf (1964–)

Phoebe Alison Roaf, who grew up in Pine Bluff (Jefferson County), was the first African American and first woman to be elected as bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of West Tennessee. She was consecrated on May 4, 2019, at Hope Presbyterian Church in Memphis, Tennessee, as the fourth bishop of the diocese. Previously, in 2008, she became the first African American woman ordained to the priesthood in the Episcopal Diocese of Louisiana.

Phoebe Alison Roaf was born in Lansing, Michigan, on March 8, 1964, but grew up in Pine Bluff, the daughter of Clifton Roaf and Andree Layton Roaf. Her father was a dentist who served on the Pine Bluff School Board and the Arkansas State Board of Higher Education. Her mother was an attorney and the first African American woman to serve on the Arkansas Supreme Court. Roaf, who was named for her maternal grandmother, has one sister and two brothers.

While she was growing up, Roaf worshiped in two traditions: her father’s Baptist church and her mother’s Episcopal parish. In an interview in the Daily Memphian following her consecration, she talked about how she loved the liturgy and flow of Episcopal worship and said that she saw her mother engage God with her intellect. She also loved the spirit-led prayers and music of her father’s church and saw him engage God with his heart. She was active in the youth group at Grace Episcopal Church, which was known at that time as the Episcopal Young Churchmen.

Roaf graduated in 1986 from Harvard College in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in history. In 1989, she received a Master of Public Affairs degree from Princeton University in Princeton, New Jersey. She served as an analyst for the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission in Virginia and for other ventures in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, for six years. Roaf attended the University of Arkansas at Little Rock William H. Bowen School of Law and received her juris doctorate in 1998. She clerked for Judge James L. Dennis of the United States Court of Appeals’ Fifth District for two years. She practiced as a commercial real estate attorney in New Orleans, Louisiana, from 2000 to 2005 until acknowledging her call to the ministry.

Roaf attended Virginia Theological Seminary in Alexandria, Virginia, where she earned a Master of Divinity degree in 2008. At the age of forty-four, she was ordained to the priesthood, the first African American woman priest in the diocese of Louisiana. After ordination, she served as associate rector of Trinity Episcopal Church in New Orleans. In 2011, she became the first female rector of the 150-year-old St. Phillips Episcopal Church in Richmond, Virginia, the largest and oldest African American parish in the state. While rector, she served as a mentor for the Education for Ministry program, a four-year academic course in biblical studies, church history, and theology, which is a distance-learning program of the School of Theology of the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee.

Roaf was elected bishop by a vote of lay delegates and clergy on the first ballot at the convention of the Diocese of West Tennessee in November 2018. The Diocese of West Tennessee is bordered on the west by the Mississippi River and on the east by the Tennessee River. Her consecration on May 4, 2019, took place at Hope Presbyterian Church in Memphis, instead of at the Episcopal cathedral or a parish church, to accommodate the large crowd. She was consecrated by the Most Reverend Michael B. Curry, presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church in the United States of America. Among the twenty-six bishops participating in the ceremony was the Right Reverend Herbert Donavan, retired bishop of the Diocese of Arkansas.

The significance of Roaf’s consecration to the participation of African Americans in the history of the Episcopal Church and the civil rights movement was honored in the consecration ceremony, which included the processional cross once carried by Dean William Dimmick as he led clergy down Poplar Avenue to confront Mayor Henry Loeb at City Hall the day after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968.

For additional information:
“Episcopal Bishop Breaks Race, Gender Barriers.” Philadelphia Tribune, May 8, 2019. (accessed November 29, 2023).

Kuruvilla, Carol. “Former Lawyer Becomes First Black Female Episcopal Bishop in the South.” HuffPost, May 9, 2019. (accessed November 29, 2023).

Paulsen, David. “Phoebe A. Roaf Consecrated as Fourth Bishop of the Diocese of West Tennessee.” Episcopal News Service, May 6, 2019. (accessed November 29, 2023).

Waters, David. “‘A child of God like everyone else’ Makes History in the Episcopal Diocese.” Daily Memphian, May 5, 2019. (accessed November 29, 2023).

Mary Janet “Bean” Murray
Little Rock, Arkansas


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