Born Enslaved, Patrick Francis Healy ‘Passed’ His Way to Lead Georgetown University

Because the 19th-century college president appeared white, he was able to climb the ladder of the Jesuit community

Patrick Francis Healy, depicted here in front of Healy Hall, served as Georgetown University's president between 1874 and 1882. (Illustration by Meilan Solly / Photos via public domain)
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This back-to-school season, as the coronavirus pandemic demands continued social distancing, many college students are logging onto their classes remotely. While the country fights this public health crisis on one front, it fights the ongoing effects of systemic racism on another, and the battle is joined on America’s college campuses, where skyrocketing tuition costs, debates over academic freedom, and reckonings with the legacies of institutional racism come together.

The University of North Carolina, for instance, has had to tackle both crises this summer, as it shuttered dorms and sent students home after Covid-19 cases spiked soon after opening. In July, administrators approved guidelines for renaming buildings that currently honor North Carolinians who promoted the murderous 1898 overthrow of Wilmington’s elected multiracial government. In June, meanwhile, Princeton acceded to longstanding demands to strip Woodrow Wilson’s name from its public policy school, since his most notorious public policy as President of the United States was to segregate the federal workforce. Following the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd, an ever-widening circle of students on campuses nationwide are re-examining their institutions’ unquestioned genuflection to their white-supremacist heritage.

But at Georgetown University, students, faculty, alumni, and administration have been re-appraising the school’s racist past for years. In 1838, when the Jesuit school was deep in debt, its president, Reverend Thomas F. Mulledy, on behalf of the Maryland Jesuits, sold 272 black men, women and children to Louisiana plantations to keep the school afloat. Three years ago, Georgetown pulled Mulledy’s name off a dormitory, replacing it with the name of enslaved laborer Isaac Hawkins. Georgetown will now consider applicants who are descendants of these enslaved persons in the same light as the children of faculty, staff and alumni for purposes of admission.

What makes Georgetown’s reflective moment most remarkable, however, and complicated, is that 35 years after Mulledy salvaged the school’s finances by selling human property, the school would be led by a man who, himself, was born enslaved. The story of Georgetown president Reverend Patrick Francis Healy reveals how a university built by enslaved persons, and rescued from collapse by the sale of enslaved persons, saw its “second founding” in the late 19th century under the guidance of a man whom the Jesuits knew had been born black but helped “pass” as white.

During his tenure from 1874 to 1883, Healy transformed the small Jesuit college into a world-class university, expanding the undergraduate curriculum and strengthening the sciences, and raising the standards of its medical and law schools. Healy traveled the country, raising funds for the university, which helped support the construction of the university’s neo-Gothic flagship building that bears his name. Its clocktower, rising over a bluff on the Potomac, was the tallest structure in Washington when it was completed in 1879.

By 19th century racial classifications in America, Patrick Healy was a black man. Yet he largely evaded the legal, social, and economic deprivations that defined the lives of most African Americans. Healy and his siblings identified as white. And despite some of the Healys’ darker complexions “hiding in plain sight,” others went along with it—with help from the Catholic Church.

Patrick Healy was one of nine children born to Michael Healy, an Irish immigrant and a wealthy Georgia plantation owner. Patrick's mother, Eliza Clark, was a biracial enslaved woman and, legally, the property of Michael Healy. James O’Toole, a history professor at Boston College and author of Passing for White, Race, Religion, and the Healy Family, 1820-1920, describes Michael and Eliza’s relationship as a common-law marriage, at a time when Georgia prohibited all unions between whites and blacks, enslaved or free. Children born to enslaved women were considered to be property upon birth, and the state generally prohibited the emancipation of slaves, even upon the death of the slaveowner. In the eyes of the state of Georgia, the Healy children were inescapably black, to be forever enslaved. O’Toole writes, “The twisted logic of slavery depended on the maintenance of clear dividing lines; slaves were black, blacks were slaves, and it had to be that way.”

Michael Healy, wanting more for his children, concluded “the only solution was to get his children out of Georgia." On a boat to New York in 1844, Healy met Father John Bernard Fitzpatrick, a Georgetown priest soon to become the Bishop of Boston, who was recruiting students for the newly established College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts. This chance meeting would anchor the Healy children in the Christian tradition that would sustain them and conceal them from America’s racial caste system for the rest of their lives.

From the moment the four oldest Healy brothers matriculated at Holy Cross (two in its high school and two in its grammar school), they presented themselves to the world as white. To the faculty and students at Holy Cross, O'Toole writes, the Healys’ African ancestry, as evidenced by the darkercomplexions of the oldest and youngest of the brothers, James and Sherwood, “was plain for all to see,” yet everyone ignored it. Bishop Fitzpatrick, whose family regularly hosted the boys during holidays and whose sister took in the Healy’s sister, Martha, as a boarder, knew the family heritage.

Fitzpatrick, always a loyal advocate for the children, lamented in a letter years later, that it was “useless to recommend” Sherwood Healy for a plum post in Rome because “[h]e has African blood and it shews [sic] distinctly in his exterior.” Patrick was “fair skinned” compared to some of his brothers but O’Toole writes, “anyone who looked at some of the brothers could easily solve the racial riddle of all of them.”

Still, the risk that appearances might give away their conceit did not cause the boys to hide in the shadows at Holy Cross; they were active in student life and distinguished themselves academically. James Healy graduated as Holy Cross’ first valedictorian. Patrick, a few years behind his brother, also placed first in his class.

While Michael Healy occasionally visited his sons at Holy Cross, a visit from their mother, Eliza, would have blown their cover and their notion of themselves. James Healy, in his diary, identifies as white, expressing his disapproval of the abolitionist cause and its potential “super-elevation of the negro,” seeing the negro as someone other than himself. Without commentary, James describes in his diary racial jokes over which he shared a laugh with his classmates.

Patrick Healy’s papers omit direct indications of how he racially identified, except that he told one of his Holy Cross mentors he was wounded when students circulated rumors about him and his brothers when he returned to the school later as a teacher, adding, “you know to what I refer.” Where James often committed to paper the racial attitudes of many of his contemporaries, Patrick appeared to withdraw into the cloistered world of the church, where he could avoid the messy business altogether. When James approached his graduation from Holy Cross in 1849, he likely spoke for all the Healys when we acknowledged in his diary the racial rebirth the Catholic church made possible for them: “Today, 5 years ago I entered this college. What a change. Then, I was nothing, now I am a Catholic.”

The boys never saw their mother again once they left for school, and they scarcely mention her in their letters. “To write a history of passing is to write a story of loss,” said historian Allyson Hobbs, author of A Chosen Exile, in an interview with NPR’s Code Switch podcast. The Healys would not straddle the fence of racial identity; they would jump the fence and keep moving.

The Bible asks, “For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” To gain access to the priesthood, where they would renounce the world, the Healys had to navigate the world’s very real racism and renounce their ancestry. Jené Schoenfeld, an English professor at Kenyon College whose work addresses representations of “the mulatto” in American fiction and culture, said in an interview, "I am disinclined to judge those who chose to pass. Their lives were at stake, their livelihoods were at stake. I think a lot of people obviously would."

In the north, the Healys were not in any apparent danger of kidnapping and return to slavery. For one, people who knew nothing of their ancestry would not likely prey on them, precisely because they appeared white. Also, technically, the Healy boys were not fugitive slaves, says Carol Wilson, an historian at Washington College in Maryland. “Their father, their owner, has let them go free. That’s an important distinction… As far as the law is concerned, they’re Michael Healy’s property, and if Michael Healy wants to let his property do whatever, that’s the issue,” she says.

Return visits to Georgia presented complications, however, especially after both parents died within months of each other in 1850. Alive, Michael Healy, as a slaveowner, could vouch for his sons as “his property,” if authorities detained and questioned his children in Georgia. Nevertheless, historian Eric Foner wrote in an e-mail, “[Patrick Healy] would certainly be unwise to return to Georgia before the Civil War.” Since Georgia law forbade Healy from emancipating his children, they remained enslaved. At the same time, Michael Healy’s will implied his sons lived as free persons in New York, under a guardian residing in New York, making them eligible to inherit his estate, which included 49 enslaved persons. His friend in New York oversaw the will’s executors in Georgia and distributed the proceeds to the children. Meanwhile, Hugh Healy, the second-oldest brother, slipped into Georgia and brought the orphaned siblings up North. The Fugitive Slave Act, signed into law by President Millard Fillmore only weeks after Michael Healy’s death, would not touch the Healy children: they had no owner to pursue them and no one would question them now as white, Irish Catholics.

Unfortunately, when it came to America’s original sin, the sins of the Healy’s father did not entirely bypass the children. The frocked Healy children recognized continued ownership in human beings was not a good look for priests. According to their father’s will, the enslaved men, women, and children were to be hired out each year, which earned a handsome profit for the estate, until the children decided to sell the individuals. In 1852, when Patrick Healy was teaching at St. Joseph’s College in Philadelphia, a fire destroyed Holy Cross’s Fenwick Hall, the college’s sole academic building, which also served as a dormitory and chapel. The school notes that, “Fundraising efforts to rebuild the damaged structure [had] languished” until 1854 when Patrick Healy, back at Holy Cross to teach in 1853, made a major donation to the capital campaign. That donation was his share of the family inheritance, largely derived from the sale of his family’s enslaved labor at auction.

After graduate studies and ordination in Europe, Healy joined Georgetown as a philosophy professor in 1866, immediately following the Civil War. He became dean soon thereafter. The Georgetown Jesuits were aware of Healy’s heritage but hid it from the school’s southern student body. “[T]he problem related to his background” came up several times as the Jesuits considered Healy among the candidates for a new college president. Yet, they could not overlook his merit, with the head of the Maryland Jesuits opining, “Clearly Healy is the most qualified.” When the sitting president died suddenly in 1873, Healy got the top job—acting at first; Rome made the appointment permanent the following year.

Today, Georgetown proudly and openly refers to Healy as the first black president of a predominantly white university. He is also celebrated as the first American of African ancestry to earn a Ph.D. In his lifetime, Healy would have rejected these recognitions as he rejected the identity of black and African-American. “If they were not living as a black person, then I don't feel like we can celebrate them as a black first,” says Schoenfeld. That said, Healy will probably not drop off any lists of “black firsts” anytime soon.

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The Georgetown Working Group on Slavery, Memory, and Reconciliation, consisting of students, faculty, alumni and the descendants of Georgetown’s 272 enslaved persons, has challenged the university to confront this history, to educate the campus and the general public about it, and to make amends for it. Georgetown history professor Adam Rothman, who served on the working group, says, “The 1838 sale...encapsulates so many of the reasons why slavery was horrific..and it had a very tangible consequence for Georgetown itself, in that the proceeds for the down-payment for the sale went to pull the university out of debt.”

Had Healy been born in Maryland, he could have been sold along with the 272 individuals Georgetown President Thomas Mulledy sold in 1838. Instead, it’s because he was born mixed-race, on a Georgia plantation, to a wealthy Irish father who looked after his welfare and paid tuition for several children to attend Catholic schools, that the brilliant Patrick Healy could become the Jesuit university’s most celebrated President. The black lives held in bondage by the Jesuits in 1838 did not matter to Mulledy. Healy and his brothers, however, did matter to him.

After Mulledy left Georgetown, he joined Holy Cross as president, where he admitted the Healy brothers in its first class and mentored them, knowing their background. Michael Healy, in his will, had even appointed Mulledy to be the boys’ guardian should his first pick pre-decease him. Perhaps, the Healys’ black ancestry did not matter to the Catholic Church because the Church was still securing its foothold in America; it was fighting nativist hostility to Irish and German Catholic immigrants, and welcomed adherents.

The Healys were great benefactors of Holy Cross, where the family members who enrolled became high-profile ambassadors for the Church (James Healy would become the Bishop of Portland, Maine, and Sherwood, the rector of the Boston Cathedral; the sisters, educated later in Canada, would become nuns and, one, a Mother Superior of a convent.) The Healys were as tight with the Boston’s Catholic leadership at this pivotal time as anyone could be: their mentor at Holy Cross, George Fenwick, was the brother of the school’s founder and the Bishop of Boston Benedict Fenwick. They took to calling him, “Dad,” while they called their biological father the more formal “Father.”

The sin of Jesuit slavery did, indeed, pass on to Patrick Healy’s generation but unlike Mulledy, Healy did not transact a slave sale for the express purpose of benefiting Holy Cross. Nonetheless, it was Healy’s inheritance, amassed from forced labor, that saved Holy Cross from demise, just as Mulledy’s sale brought Georgetown back from the brink. It was also during Healy’s tenure as Georgetown president that the school embraced the Confederate “Lost Cause” in the same spirit it honored Union loyalty in its adoption of the school colors, the blue and the gray. These southern sympathies thus sealed, Georgetown was late among the country’s all-white universities to admit its first black student, which happened in 1950.

But Healy is not Mulledy. Healy was never free, even as a “freedman,” after the Civil War. No matter how high he built Healy Hall, he could never slip the surly bonds of America’s caste system. Were Healy to ever reveal his past at this institution, all would come tumbling down. The Church who stood by him privately might leave him publicly. Worse, in Jim Crow America, he would be consigned to second-class citizenship. For as long as he lived, the past threatened his present. As Faulkner wrote, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

When Healy died, he was laid to rest in Georgetown’s Jesuit Community Cemetery, where Mulledy was buried 50 years earlier. Outside Georgetown’s gates, Washington’s cemeteries were segregated.

Editor's note, September 9, 2020: Due to an editing error, this article originally claimed that Georgetown was offering free admission to descendants of the enslaved laborers sold by Mulledy. They are offering legacy status to those applicants.

About Bryan Greene

Bryan Greene lives in Washington, D.C. and has written about music, history, and race and society for Poverty & Race.

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