On May 24, 150 years ago, a first-generation Irish-American named Patrick Francis Healy became President of Georgetown University in Washington.
That fact alone might have gone unnoticed: just one of many success stories that were happening among Irish emigrants in the United States at the time. What makes Healy’s story stand out today, while intended to remain a secret during his lifetime, is that he was also black.
Not only was he black, but he was technically born a slave, a status he inherited from his mother, one Mary Eliza Clark (aka Smith).
Family patriarch Michael Healy, an emigrant from Roscommon in 1818, had first bought Eliza and then settled with her in a log cabin in Macon, Georgia, where they raised a large family.
Despite their common-law marriage, which appeared to be affectionate and lasted until her death, Healy continued to possess his wife under local law.
He also owned the ten children they had together, for following the teaching Partus sequitur ventrem (“The offspring follows the womb”), a holdover of ancient Rome imported into the American colonies, they too became his Slaves.
In Georgia at that time, gratuitous manumission – the voluntary granting of freedom to the enslaved – was illegal, as was the training of slaves.
But the couple sent their offspring to school in the free north. And in most cases, the children went on to successful careers, particularly in the Church.
Even by standard Irish Catholic standards, their collective achievements in the religious sphere would have been extraordinary. Of the nine who reached adulthood, three became nuns, including a matron, and three became priests, one of whom rose to the rank of bishop.
But again, it’s her color that made her go down in history. Therefore, James Healy is now considered America’s first black Catholic bishop; Eliza Dunamore Healy was among the first black matrons; and the aforementioned Patrick is officially the first black American to both complete a doctorate and serve as president of a white university.
Even one of those who avoided religious life, Michael Augustine Healy, created his own piece of history. A captain in the early US Coast Guard that patrolled the vast waters off newly acquired Alaska, he is now credited with being the first African American to command a US government ship.
Unfortunately, the success of the Healys is not a story of tolerance and color blindness. On the contrary: the key to their rise was that, with one exception, they did not look black.
Even her enslaved mother was mostly European, with a single great-grandparent of African-American ancestry, which in turn was only one-sixteenth of the younger Healy’s ancestry.
But even that had to be hidden wherever possible. In the case of Alexander Sherwood Healy, the only sibling whose African heritage was evident, it wasn’t so simple.
He, too, had a good life, becoming a priest in Paris, earning his doctorate in canon law in Rome, and then running a seminary in New York before his untimely death. But to hide their own secret, the other Healy siblings had to avoid being seen with him in public.
Another uncomfortable fact of the Healy story is that while the children were born into slavery, they also became slave owners where their father died.
The parents had planned to leave Georgia for New York, but Eliza’s untimely death was soon followed by the death of her seemingly heartbreaking husband, after which the 1,500-acre estate and his other slaves (49 or 61 depending on the count) fell into the hands of the property of the children.
At this point, Patrick Healy was teaching at Holy Cross College in Boston, where he himself had studied. When the main building burned down in a fire, he financed a generous donation for the renovation from the sale of slaves.
Despite being the palest of all the Healy children, he was still the target of rumors when he once wrote to a fellow priest about remarks that “were sometimes made (but not to my ears) that hurt my heart.” You know , to which I am referring.”
The secret was also known to the Jesuits in Georgetown. Despite her misgivings, however, his brilliance as a teacher and administrator convinced her to appoint him acting president on May 24, 1873.
Georgetown was then heavily frequented and funded by supporters of the old Confederacy. It remained a bastion of white advancement, admitting black students a century after Yale and Harvard.
As President, Healy worked tirelessly to build his reputation (and his campus, particularly in the large building now called Healy Hall). At the end of his life he was considered the “second founder” of the university.
But he never questioned the racial profile, while his own identity remained unknown until well after his death in 1910. When a 1950s biography revealed his maternal lineage, a portrait of Healy that hung in Georgetown—then a whites-only campus—was destroyed.