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Would the Rev. Patrick Healy, Who Passed for White, Want to Be Celebrated as a Black Hero?

Patrick Healy never directly addressed questions of what his racial identity might have been in the written record he left behind. However, he wrote on a few occasions about “blacks” or “negroes” in a tone that seems to indicate that he saw them as a group he did not belong to.

Father Patrick Francis Healy, S.J., was the first African American to receive a doctorate degree and the first to be president of a predominantly White university when he became president of Georgetown University in 1872. (Photo: Blake Photography/Public domain)

In 2015 and 2016, Georgetown University became enmeshed in conversations about race taking place at college campuses across the United States. At Georgetown, conversation centered on the institution’s history with slavery, which had been an integral part of its early years, with much of the labor on campus falling to enslaved people.

The focus was the sale of 272 enslaved African Americans in 1838, a sale undertaken by Jesuits Thomas F. Mulledy and William McSherry with the intent to accrue enough money to pay off some of the school’s debts and keep it open. This sale resulted in the breakup of numerous families, and the majority were sold into the Deep South, where they were subjected to harsher conditions of forced agricultural labor. The sale was controversial at the time but eventually largely faded from the memory of White Catholics. (As Shannen Dee Williams, historian at Villanova University and originator of the Twitter hashtag #BlackHistoryIsCatholicHistory, has pointed out, what many people now think of as new information about religious orders owning enslaved people never faded from the memories of Black Catholics.)

Moreover, discussion also included broader issues around Georgetown’s relationship to slavery, including buildings named after slaveholding faculty, and on what actions might be taken to acknowledge and make amends for this history. A number of initiatives grew out of this; a working group made archival resources on slavery at Georgetown available online and researched the fates of those sold in 1838, the school held an apology ceremony attended by community members and descendants of those sold, and buildings named after Mulledy and McSherry were renamed. Additionally, the school opted to grant descendants of those sold in 1838 preferential admission. More recently, students voted to add a student fee to go toward reparations for descendants of those enslaved at Georgetown. The future of the fee and how or whether it will be implemented remains uncertain. The university has recently committed to raising $400,000 annually toward reparations, which some students feel is too little.

Patrick Francis Healy: Legally Enslaved, Passing for White

One figure has been strangely absent from this conversation: Patrick Francis Healy, the university’s 29th president. In November of 1853, Healy, then a young Jesuit in training, sent a letter to an older Jesuit and mentor, George Fenwick. He wrote from his teaching post at College of the Holy Cross: “Father, I will be candid with you. Placed in a college as I am, are boys who were well acquainted with by sight or hearsay, with me + my brothers, remarks are sometimes made (then if not in my hearing) which wound my very heart. You know to what I refer. The anxiety of mind caused by these is very intense.”

The “remarks” that wounded Healy’s heart were likely about his racial background. Patrick Healy was no ordinary young American Jesuit. He was the son of an enslaved woman, Eliza Clark, and the man who legally owned her, Michael Healy. Born in Georgia in 1834, Healy was sent north for education at a young age, accompanied by his siblings, all of whom would eventually be sent north. After this, they had little contact with either of their parents, and their mother was, as far as can be told, kept secret from most who knew them. Both parents died when Patrick was 16.

The Healy siblings were, based on photographic evidence and how they were received in broader society, perceived to be White by most who encountered them. There were exceptions to this; as indicated by Healy’s letter to Fenwick, suspicions (at the very least) about the Healys’ racial background circulated among students at College of the Holy Cross. However, he mainly lived life as a White man, passing through and presiding over spaces that rejected Black people. He was president of Georgetown University from 1874 to 1882, where he oversaw the construction of Healy Hall, an imposing structure that greets visitors to campus still today.

Healy Hall at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.
Healy Hall at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.

Healy and many of his siblings became well-known within the Catholic church. James Healy, the oldest, was Bishop of the Diocese of Portland, Maine, from 1875 to 1900 and became well known for his work with the Abenaki indigenous people of the area. Sherwood Healy was rector of the cathedral in Boston and an expert in canon law and Gregorian chant. Two sisters were nuns, with one becoming Mother Superior of a convent in Vermont. Another brother, Michael Healy Jr., was well-known in the U.S. Revenue Cutter Service, the predecessor to the Coast Guard, and today the Coast Guard’s largest ship is named after him.

In the 1950s, the Healy family’s parental secret was rediscovered and publicized by a Jesuit named Albert Foley. Foley, who was committed to civil rights work, thought that one way of creating change on race within the Catholic church was to show White Catholics that Black Catholics had always been valuable members of the U.S. Catholic Church and should be seen as brothers and sisters in faith. His work on the Healys was part of this belief; he published books on James Healy and Patrick Healy, as well as a book on the history of Black Catholic priests in the United States. Foley’s legacy is by no means uncomplicated; for example, he opposed the work of Martin Luther King Jr. as he believed that protests could not affect what he saw as necessary change within the hearts and minds of individuals, and that protests, regardless of intention, could stir up violence and unrest.

Born Into Slavery, Enslaving Other Blacks

The Healy siblings’ relationship to slavery was complex. On the one hand, they were, according to Georgia law at the time, legally enslaved for much of their lives, going well into adulthood, due to the enslaved status of their mother. On the other hand, the sale and renting out of other people their father, Michael Healy, held in slavery after his death created financial security for the Healy siblings for the remainder of their lives after his death. This meant the Healys were both themselves legally enslaved and people who benefited from the sale of other enslaved Black Americans. This contradictory state of affairs would shape their lives and become a conflicted part of their legacy.

Curiously, Patrick Healy has, by and large, not been a part of conversations about slavery at Georgetown. However, it was, after all, four years after his birth in Georgia that the sale of 272 enslaved persons in 1838 took place; why should he be involved? On the other hand, this was despite Healy later being recognized as the university’s first African-American president, and as someone who had spent the first three decades of his life legally enslaved. Healy has been such a large part of discussions about race and belonging at Georgetown that his absence in conversations about the institution’s history with slavery can feel odd.

Patrick Francis Healy in 1872

College of the Holy Cross has also been roiled by controversy about its relationship to slavery. Unlike at Georgetown, however, discussion at Holy Cross significantly included the Healys, as a building there is named after James, who was the college’s first valedictorian. The building was funded in part by the sale and renting out of people enslaved by Michael Healy, donated by Patrick after he received his inheritance to repair a building damaged by a fire. However, recognizing the family’s complex relationship to the institution of slavery, Holy Cross president Philip Boroughs, S.J., recommended that the building keep its name but be supplemented with an exhibit explaining this complex relationship.

Patrick Healy never directly addressed questions of what his racial identity might have been in the written record (including extensive diaries, correspondence, and reflections on the Ignatian spiritual exercises) that he left behind. He hints at it occasionally; he wrote on a few occasions about “blacks” or “negroes” in a tone that seems to indicate that he saw them as a group he did not belong to. Events of his childhood are relevant here as well; for example, in 1849, when Patrick was 15, his brother James recalled going into Worcester with Patrick and a few other people to see the Ethiopian Serenaders, a blackface troupe. As James O’Toole, who chronicled the Healy family in his book Passing for White: Race, Religion, and the Healy Family, 1820-1920, wrote, “absent was any sense that they were part of the racial group being mocked on stage” in James’s diary entry on the occasion. Patrick Healy presided over Georgetown University during a time in which Black students were not admitted. He largely moved in predominantly or exclusively White spaces. Based on these facts, it does not seem terribly far afield to argue that Healy saw himself as White.

Given all of this, what does it mean to claim Healy as Black today? What does it mean to assert an identity for someone that they would not have claimed for themselves? In 2007, Georgetown student D. Pierce Nixon argued in a piece for The Hoya that

Modern fascination with Healy borders on celebrating him as a civil rights leader, which he was not. In fact, we are wrong to call Healy a [B]lack president at all. He wouldn’t have. Healy’s story is so popular because, whether he meant to or not, he serves as an example to us of what a person can achieve regardless of color. We see in him an ideal of equality and acceptance that we would like to see in our own time. It’s a great story, but it’s one that we made up. Healy the Jesuit did not become Healy the Great Black Jesuit until long after his death. Disappointing, I know.

Three Georgetown students, including PBS journalist Yamiche Alcindor, Amy Hang, and Xavier Ringer, argued in response that

Indeed, Healy was “the first [B]lack [Georgetown] president” and should be recognized as that. Reluctance to label himself as such was more a reflection of the historical context during which he lived, its pressures to “pass for [W]hite” and negate one’s African heritage. Regardless, he still stands as a proud symbol of how people of color achieved at Georgetown, even if he unfortunately chose not to publicly embrace his identity.

These responses in the Hoya might be seen as two different ways of thinking about Healy and race. To Nixon, thinking of Healy as Black is anachronistic due to his self-identification and the lack of awareness of his heritage from those around him. To Alcindor, Hang, and Ringer, Healy’s self-identification as White is a remnant of structural racism and the oppression of and lack of opportunities for Black people.

Though immediately concerned with circumstances at Georgetown, these ways of seeing Healy have broader implications. They are different ways of relating to the past and figuring out what lessons it has for the present and future. The Healys have something of a mixed legacy in this regard. There is currently no cause for them to be made saints, unlike, for example, Augustus Tolton, Pierre Toussaint, Mary Lange, Henriette Delille, or Julia Greeley.

Cyprian Davis acknowledges the Healys in his master work, The History of Black Catholics in the United States, but questions their lack of identification with or solidarity with other Black Catholics, writing that: “one may not judge the intentions and the unexpressed sentiments of another or apply the sensitivities and the awareness of a later historical period to an earlier time, yet one may still wonder how these good and upright men judged themselves in the silence of their own hearts.” A decade later, James O’Toole encouraged empathy for their choices: “faced with their dilemmas and their times, can we say that we would have done things differently, that we would have been bolder? Faced with the powerful forces of oppression that were all around them, would we too not have taken advantage of whatever escape fortune provided?”

Patrick Healy’s story is important beyond the walls of Georgetown University or College of the Holy Cross, though it certainly has a special import there. It is a story about the meaning of the past for the future and the present, and the relationship between how someone thought about themselves and how we might think of them today.


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    Written by Alexandria Griffin

    Alexandria Griffin holds a PhD in Religious Studies from Arizona State University and is a 2020-2021 Visiting Assistant Professor of African American Religions at New College of Florida. Her dissertation work focuses on Patrick Francis Healy, S.J. and racial and religious identity in his life and legacy.