Irish, American, and black – Frank McNally on the remarkable rise of the Georgia Healys

The success of the Healys is not, alas, a story of tolerance and colour blindness

One hundred and fifty years ago on May 24th, a first-generation Irish-American named Patrick Francis Healy became president of Washington’s Georgetown University.

That fact alone might have been unremarkable: just another of many success stories then unfolding among the emigrant Irish in the US. What now sets Healy’s story apart, although it would remain a secret throughout his lifetime, is that he was also black.

Not only was he black, but technically he had been born a slave, a status inherited from his mother, one Mary Eliza Clark (aka Smith).

The family patriarch, Michael Healy, an emigrant from Roscommon in 1818, had first bought Eliza, then set up home with her in a log cabin in Macon, Georgia, where they raised a large family.


Despite their common-law marriage, which seems to have been a loving one and lasted until death, Healy continued to own his wife in the eyes of the local law.

He also owned the 10 children they had together, because under the doctrine Partus sequitur ventrem (“the offspring follows the womb”), a vestige of ancient Rome imported to the American colonies, they became his slaves too.

In Georgia of the time, gratuitous manumission – voluntary conferment of freedom on the enslaved – was illegal, as indeed was the education of slaves.

But the couple sent their offspring to the free North to be schooled. And in most cases, the children went on to successful careers, especially in the church.

Even by the usual Irish-Catholic standards, their combined achievements in the religious sphere would have been extraordinary. Of the nine who survived to adulthood, three became nuns, including a mother superior, and three priests, one of whom rose to bishop.

Again, however, it is for their colour that they made history. Hence James Healy is now considered to have been America’s first black Catholic bishop; Eliza Dunamore Healy was among the first black mother superiors; and the aforementioned Patrick is officially the first black American both to have completed a PhD and to be president of a white university.

Even one of those who avoided the religious life, Michael Augustine Healy, created his own piece of history. As a captain in the early US coast guard service – patrolling the vast waters off newly-bought Alaska – he is now considered the first African-American to command a US government ship.

The success of the Healys is not, alas, a story of tolerance and colour blindness. On the contrary, the key to their rise was that, with one exception, they did not look black.

Even their enslaved mother was mostly European, with a single great-grandparent of African American ancestry, who in turn became only 1/16th of the younger Healys’ heritage.

But even that was something to be hidden, where possible. This was not so easy in the case of Alexander Sherwood Healy, the one sibling in whom the African heritage was obvious.

He too did well in life, becoming a priest in Paris, earning a doctorate of canon law in Rome, and then directing a seminary in New York before his early death. But in covering up their own secret, the other Healy siblings had to avoid being seen in public with him.

Another uncomfortable fact of the Healy story is that, while born into slavery, the children too 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 that of her seemingly heart-broken husband, at which point the 1,500-acre estate and its other slaves (49 or 61 by different counts) devolved into the children’s ownership.

By then Patrick Healy was teaching at Boston’s Holy Cross College, where he himself had studied. When the main building burned down in a fire, he funded a generous donation for the refurbishment from the sale of slaves.

The palest of all the Healy children, he was nevertheless the target of rumours, once writing to a fellow priest about comments “sometimes made (though not in my hearing) which wound my very heart. You know to what I refer.”

The secret was known to the Jesuits in Georgetown too. Despite their misgivings, however, his brilliance as a teacher and administrator persuaded them to make him acting president on May 24th, 1873.

Georgetown was heavily attended and financed then by supporters of the old Confederacy. It remained a bastion of the white ascendancy, not admitting black students until a century after Yale and Harvard did.

As president, Healy worked tirelessly to build up its prestige (and campus, most notably in the grand building now called Healy Hall). By the end of his life, he was known as the university’s “second founder”.

But he never challenged its racial profile, while his own identity remained unacknowledged until long after his death in 1910. When a 1950s biography revealed his maternal heritage, a portrait of Healy hanging in Georgetown – still a whites-only campus then – was vandalised.