February is Black History Month, and the Neighborhood will be highlighting some African-Americans that may not readily come to mind for students.
First off is a family from Georgia that achieved many notable firsts as African-Americans, even though many Blacks still belittle their accomplishments, due to their mixed lineage and religion. In 1818, Michael Morris Healy emigrated from Ireland and settled in the “bottom” country of Jones County, Georgia, near the town of Macon. He would become a successful cotton planter, with 1,500 acres and 49 enslaved Africans. Among them was a 16 year old girl named Mary Eliza, who Healy took as his common-law wife in 1829. Even though their “marriage” was illegal, they lived as husband and wife, rearing 10 children.
It is these children, these “bastard” children of an illegal union that are the heart of this story. Under Georgia law, children of slaves and masters were considered enslaved, and thus prohibited from receiving an education. The Healys were thus educated in northern schools and abroad, always in strict adherence to their father’s Roman Catholic faith. Among the nine children were:
1. James Augustine Healy (1830-1900) –Though not as documented as his brothers, James did found the Healy legacy of achievement. He graduated from the College of the Holy Cross in 1849. In 1875, Healy became the first African-American Roman Catholic bishop, as he was installed as Bishop of Portland, Maine. James oversaw the establishment of 60 new churches, 68 missions, 18 convents and 18 schools.
2. Patrick Francis Healy (1834-1910) – Patrick Healy is a personal favorite of mine, as he is connected to my alma mater. Patrick graduated Holy Cross in 1850, and then entered the Jesuit order. The Jesuits, fearing that his race would be an issue in the states, sent Patrick to the University of Louvain, in Belgium. He became the first African-American to earn a PhD–NOT W.E.B. Du Bois as commonly believed. In 1866 Healy became dean of Georgetown University. In 1874, Patrick became president of Georgetown, the first African-American of a major, white-majority university in the United States. As president, Healy modernized the curriculum by requiring courses in the sciences, particularly chemistry and physics. He even expanded and upgraded the schools of law and medicine. Patrick’s influence was so far-reaching that he is hailed as Georgetown’s “second founder”, after founder John Carroll.
3. Michael Augustine Healy (1839-1904) –Michael, who ditched Holy Cross for a life at sea, did not follow his older brothers’ path to the priesthood. Michael joined a British ship as a cabin boy in 1854. In 1864, Abraham Lincoln signed Michael’s commission as a Third Lieutenant in the Revenue Cutter Service, which would later become the United States Coast Guard. Healy patrolled the 20,000 miles of Alaskan coastline for more than 20 years, earning great respect of the natives and seafarers alike. After commercial fishing had depleted the whale and seal populations, his assistance with introduction of Siberian reindeer helped prevent starvation among the native Alaskans. He became the first African-American to attain the rank of captain of the Coast Guard in 1880. In 1882, he became the first African-American to captain a US government ship. His life inspired Jack London’s novel the Sea-Wolf, as well as James Michener’s Alaska.
All of these men achieved “firsts” for African-Americans, yet few scholars and even fewer African-Americans acknowledge their accomplishments. The reasons are simple: they often did not openly recognize their African roots, and they were Catholic.
The Healys were light-skinned: they “passed” for white as long as their lineage was not questioned. Yet none of them openly denied their mother’s heritage. Patrick Healy, in fact, was unashamed to acknowledge his African blood if questioned, even though he was president of a college with a large Southern white population.
The Catholic aspect was part of a general bias against Catholics in America through most of the 19th Century. In fact, it could be said that the Healys were equally, if not more, held back by their religion as they were by their race.
Yet regardless of their race or their religion, it was a shame that their achievements have lacked recognition. This February, let’s hope the Healys attain their deserved place among the pantheon of African-American heroes.