Newly-discovered documents on Fr. Raphael Morgan

We’ve devoted a fair amount of attention here at to Fr. Raphael Morgan, the first black Orthodox priest in America. Very briefly: Morgan was born in Jamaica, traveled widely, and eventually became an Episcopalian deacon in the United States. In 1907, after many years of study, he traveled to Constantinople and was received into the Orthodox Church and ordained a priest. He was commissioned to establish an Orthodox mission for black Americans in Philadelphia. We know that he remained Orthodox through at least 1916, but we’ve found no traces of him after that.

In 1909, Morgan and his wife Charlotte divorced. Fr. Raphael retained custody of their 13-year-old daughter, Roberta Viola Morgan, while their 9-year-old son Cyril Ignatius lived with his mother. Charlotte later remarried, and I think Cyril went on to become some sort of Protestant minister in New York. The April 6, 1933 issue of the Philadelphia Tribune reported that “Rev. Cyril Morgan of New York was the weekend guest of his mother, Mrs. Charlotte Baylis[s]” in Wayne, PA. This is as far as I’ve been able to trace Cyril’s whereabouts, although I have found references to a Rev. Cyril T. Morgan of New York — who may or may not be our man — into the late 1940s.

Roberta Viola Morgan has proven more difficult to find — until now. The website recently opened their travel and immigration records to the public, for an extremely short period of time. I took advantage of the opportunity to search for Morgan, and I quickly struck gold. I found an Emergency Passport Application for Roberta dated April 5, 1924. It turns out that she had been living in Greece from 1912 to 1924 (so, roughly ages 15-27). Here are some highlights:

  • Roberta said that her father was “Rafael Morgan,” and that he was deceased.
  • There are a bunch of question marks in the fields for Fr. Raphael’s US citizenship information, suggesting that Roberta didn’t know whether her father was a US citizen.
  • She said that her permanent residence was “Waine” (Wayne), PA (where her mother lived).
  • Roberta left the US in 1910, lived in England for two years, and then moved to Athens for the purpose of “education.”
  • The application said that Roberta “knows no American citizen in Athens.”

There’s other good stuff, too — a photo of Roberta, a rather detailed description of her physical characteristics, etc. And it looks like Roberta’s passport application was approved: I also found a passenger manifest showing that Roberta arrived in New York on May 3, 1924. She listed her US address as 241 Island Ave. in Wayne, PA, which I assume was her mother’s home.

We can glean a lot from all this information. For one, we now know that Fr. Raphael Morgan died sometime between 1916 and 1924. We know that, almost immediately after his 1909 divorce, Morgan sent his daughter to live in Europe. And it’s not like it was a brief stay — the woman spent most of her teenage and young adult life in Greece. She probably didn’t see her mother in all that time, either.

We already have a passenger manifest for Fr. Raphael from 1911: he arrived back in the US from Greece in October of that year. Now that we have Roberta’s passport application, we can say rather confidently that Fr. Raphael was returning after leaving his daughter overseas. Also, this helps clear up an ambiguity: in his 1981 article on Morgan, the Greek Orthodox historian Paul Manolis wrote that an elderly Philadelphia Greek parishioner said that Morgan’s daughter was “a graduate of Oxford.” That seems highly unlikely — she was only in her mid-teens during her stay in England — but the parishioner correctly remembered that she was educated in the UK.

What could have motivated Fr. Raphael Morgan to send his teenage daughter across an ocean, and leave her there for the rest of his life? Why not just let her live with her mother, brother, and stepfather in Pennsylvania? My guess is that it’s because Morgan’s divorce was so hostile that he simply did not want his daughter anywhere near her mother.

And what was she doing all those years in Greece? Can you imagine a black American girl living in Greece for a decade? She may very well have remained Orthodox, given where she was. This new document answers some important questions, but it raises even more.

This article was written by Matthew Namee.

Leave a Reply