Healy family

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The Healy family of Georgia became notable in U.S. history because of the siblings' high achievements in the second half of the nineteenth century, particularly within the Catholic Church. They were born in Jones County, Georgia, to Mary Eliza Smith, a mulatto slave, and her common-law husband, Michael Morris Healy, an Irish Catholic immigrant from County Roscommon, who became a wealthy cotton planter. As they were born into slavery, the mixed-race children were prohibited from being educated in Georgia. They were majority European in ancestry, and Healy was determined to provide them with educations. He sent them to the North, as did many planters with mixed-race children. The sons attended a combination of Quaker and later Catholic schools in New York, New Jersey, and Massachusetts. James, Patrick and Sherwood all did further studies at Saint-Sulpice Seminary in Paris, France, and the latter two earned doctorates there. The three daughters were educated at long-established Catholic convent schools in Montreal, Canada.

Of the nine children who lived to adulthood, three of the sons became ordained Catholic priests and educators, while all three daughters became nuns. (One later left the order, married an Irish immigrant and had a son). James Augustine Healy became the first American bishop of African descent, and Eliza Healy attained the rank of Mother Superior, the first person of African-American descent to reach this position. Michael Healy, the youngest boy, joined the United States Revenue Cutter Service, a predecessor of the U.S. Coast Guard. Today he is noted as the first person of African-American descent to command a federal ship. Three of the Healy children have been individually honored by the naming of various buildings, awards and a ship for them. The former site of the Healy family's plantation near Macon, Georgia is now called Healy Point. It includes the Healy Point Country Club.[1]

Born into slavery, the children were considered mulatto in the South, a census classification that recognized the range of degrees of mixed race. With three-quarter European ancestry, the children varied in features and complexions. All were baptized Catholic in the North and were accepted as white Irish Americans.[α] Their stories have intrigued historians and sociologists because of the Healys' high achievements. They gained higher educations and most became prominent in the Catholic Church, they negotiated racial issues, and they created alliances with Catholic Church officials and its institutions. The Catholic Church representatives who mentored the young Healy men and women have also attracted interest. James M. O'Toole's Passing for White: Race, Religion, and the Healy Family, 1820-1920 (2003) explores many of those issues. A. D. Powell's Passing for Who You Really Are (2005) takes issue with what she calls the distortion of the past by 20th-century activists, as she says they practice their own kind of "one-drop rule." She thinks it is inappropriate to claim as African American individuals such as the Healys, who historically identified and were accepted as Irish American, although they acknowledged their multi-racial heritage.[2] Since the late 20th century, several of the Healys have been noted and celebrated as the "first African Americans" to achieve certain positions.

Family history[edit]

The immigrant ancestor, Michael Morris Healy, was born on September 20, 1796, in the village of Athlone in County Roscommon. He emigrated to the United States, possibly by way of Canada, arriving in 1818. Through good fortune in a Georgia land lottery and later acquisitions, he eventually acquired 1,500 acres (6.1 km2) of good "bottomland" near the Ocmulgee River in Jones County, across from the market town of Macon. He became one of the more prominent and successful planters in an area known for cotton, and owned 49 slaves for his labor-intensive enterprise.[1]

Among these was a 16-year-old girl named Mary Eliza (whose surname has been recorded both as Smith and Clark), whom he took as his common-law wife in 1829, when he was age 33.[3] His wife, Mary Eliza Smith/Clark, has been described in various accounts as "slave" and "former slave", and as mulatto and African American (which includes mixed-race). In the South, persons of visible or known African racial heritage were considered to be "black," because of the association with slavery as a racial caste. By that criterion, Mary Eliza and all the Healy children were black, although the children were three-quarters European or more in ancestry. The term "mulatto" was also in use, which recognized mixed race. In Louisiana, free people of color formed a third class, whose descendants are called Louisiana creoles. These free mixed-race people gained education and property, sometimes as a result of settlements on women and children in the system of plaçage.[4]

The union of Michael Morris and Mary Eliza Healy was unusual for being relatively formalized, although unions were common between white men and mixed-race or black women. He was not the only wealthy white man to take an African-American wife and to provide for the education of their children. For example, shortly before the start of the American Civil War, nearly all the 200 young men at Wilberforce College in southern Ohio, established by white and black Ohio Methodist leaders for the education of blacks, were mixed-race sons of wealthy white planters from the South.[5]

At the time, Georgia law (and that of most other states) prohibited interracial marriage.[1] The couple lived together as man and wife from 1829 until their deaths a few months apart in 1850. During that time they had ten children, nine of whom survived to adulthood.[3]


Under the laws, if their mother had been a slave at their births, the children of the Healys would also have been considered slaves, according to the principle of partus sequitur ventrum by which children were assigned the status of their mother. Various accounts of her status conflict. The laws in Georgia prohibited the education of the children because they were considered black, whether slave or free. Such anti-literacy laws had been instituted in southern states following Nat Turner's slave rebellion in 1831.

To overcome obstacles for the children, Healy sent his sons to northern states for their education as soon as each was old enough; he sent his daughters to a French-Canadian convent school in Montreal. The oldest son James, born in 1830, was sent to Flushing, New York in 1837 where he attended a Quaker school. He later transferred to another Quaker school in Burlington, New Jersey. Several of James' younger brothers followed him in this path. The Quaker schools presented different issues for the boys. They faced criticism because their father owned slaves, which was in conflict with Quaker principles of equality of men, and some discrimination as sons of an Irish Catholic immigrant at a time of greatly increased immigration during the Great Famine.

Around 1844, the senior Michael Healy met John Bernard Fitzpatrick, the Catholic bishop of the Diocese of Boston. He learned of the new College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, which was then accepting children of grammar school age. In 1844, Healy sent his sons James 14, Hugh 12, Patrick 10, and Sherwood 8, to be enrolled at Holy Cross. Michael, then only 6 years old, followed a few years later, enrolling in 1849 at Holy Cross.[1]

The Healy parents intended to sell their plantation and move to the North with their three youngest children.[1] When the parents each died unexpectedly in 1850, Hugh Healy risked his safety to return to Georgia to take his three youngest siblings to the North, while executors of his parents' estate liquidated the plantation and other assets. Safe in New York, Hugh arranged for the three youngest children to be baptized as Catholics in the Church of St. Francis Xavier on June 13, 1851.[6] After graduating from Holy Cross, Hugh had gone to New York. He was building a hardware business in the city, but died at age 21 as a result of an infection contracted after a boating accident in the Hudson River.[1]

The Healy children[edit]

James Augustine Healy
Patrick Francis Healy
Michael Augustine Healy

James Augustine Healy[edit]

For more details on this topic, see James Augustine Healy.

James Augustine Healy (1830–1900) graduated valedictorian of the Holy Cross's first graduating class in 1849. In 1962, Holy Cross christened its newest dormitory Healy Hall in honor of him. He was the first American with African ancestry to become a Roman Catholic Bishop in the United States, ordained as Bishop of Portland, Maine on June 2, 1875.[7] During his time in Maine, at a period of growth in rapid Catholic immigration, Healy oversaw the establishment of 60 new churches, 68 missions, 18 convents and 18 schools.

Patrick Francis Healy[edit]

For more details on this topic, see Patrick Francis Healy.

Patrick Francis Healy (1834–1910) became a Jesuit, and was the first American with African ancestry to earn a PhD, at Saint-Sulpice Seminary in Paris. He was named a dean at Georgetown University in 1866. At the age of 39, on July 31, 1874, he assumed the presidency of what was then the largest Catholic college in the United States.[8]

Patrick Healy's influence on Georgetown University was so far-reaching that he is often referred to as the school's "second founder," following Archbishop John Carroll. Healy helped transform the small nineteenth-century college into a major university for the twentieth century. He modernized the curriculum by requiring courses in the sciences, particularly chemistry and physics. He expanded and upgraded the schools of law and medicine. In the antebellum years, the college had drawn most of its students from the South; four-fifths of the alumni fought as Confederates. In the later nineteenth century, it began to draw more students from the Northeast, which had a higher rate of Catholic immigration. During Healy's tenure, the college adopted the colors of blue and grey as a symbol of reconciliation for the nation. Healy Hall, which currently houses Georgetown University's undergraduate admissions office, is named after him.[8]

Michael Augustine Healy[edit]

For more details on this topic, see Michael A. Healy.

Michael Augustine Healy (1838–1904) was younger than brothers James, Hugh, Patrick, and Sherwood. Unhappy and rebellious at Holy Cross, he was sent at the age of 15 to a seminary in France. He preferred a more adventurous life, and fled the school the following year.[1] In England, he signed aboard the American East Indian Clipper Jumna as a cabin boy in 1854. He quickly became an expert seaman. Soon he rose to the rank of officer on merchant vessels.[9]

In 1864, Michael Healy returned to his family, by then based in Boston. He applied for a commission in the Revenue Cutter Service and was accepted as a Third Lieutenant, with a commission signed by President Abraham Lincoln.[9][10] Michael served with the US Revenue Service along the 20,000-mile (32,000 km) coastline of the new territory following the Alaska Purchase of 1867.[11] In 1880, he became the first American of African descent to be assigned command of a US government ship. During the last two decades of the 19th century, Captain Healy was essentially the federal government’s law enforcement presence in the vast territory.[9] In his twenty years of service between San Francisco and Point Barrow, he acted as: judge, doctor, and policeman to Alaskan natives, merchant seamen and whaling crews.[12] Commissioned in 1999, the U.S. Coast Guard research icebreaker USCGC Healy (WAGB-20) is named in his honor.[9]

Eliza Healy[edit]

Eliza Healy (1846–1918), educated at St. Johns, Quebec, joined her family in Boston for several years. She felt a calling to the religious life and returned to Montreal, where she entered the novitiate in the Congregation of Notre Dame in 1874 and took her vows in 1876.[13] They were the teaching order of her school and had been established in 1653 by a French nun. After teaching in schools in Quebec and Ontario, Sister Mary Magdalen was first named as superior of a convent in 1895 in Huntington, Quebec, where she served until 1897.[13] In 1903 Healy was appointed school administrator and Mother Superior at a Catholic convent, at Villa Barlow, St. Albans, Vermont, the first woman of African-American descent to achieve the position.[1][14] In her 15 years there, Sister Mary Magdalen restored the complex's facilities and finances.[13] In her last year, she served as Mother Superior for the Congregation of Notre Dame at the Academy of Our Lady of the Blessed Sacrament on Staten Island, New York, where she restored their finances.[1]

Other Healy children[edit]

  • As previously noted, Hugh Healy (1832–1853) was a graduate of Holy Cross and an aspiring young businessman when he died at age 21.
  • Alexander Sherwood Healy (called Sherwood) (1836–1875) was also ordained as a priest, and earned his doctorate degree at Saint-Sulpice Seminary in Paris.[3] He became an expert in Gregorian chant and canon law.[1] After serving his brother James as chancellor, he was appointed director of the Catholic seminary in Troy, New York and rector of the Cathedral in Boston. His career was cut short by an early death at age 39.[1][15]

All three of the Healy girls: Martha, Josephine, and Eliza, were educated beginning as children at the convent school of the Congregation of Notre Dame in Montreal. They chose to become nuns, following the women and the institution that had been influential in their lives.[1]

  • Martha Healy (1840–1920) was sent to Canada in the 1840s for her education. She joined the Congregation of Notre Dame in Montreal in 1855. In 1863 she left the order[13] and moved to Boston, joining two brothers and her sisters. On 25 July 1865, in Waltham, Massachusetts, she married Jeremiah Cashman, a man of Irish heritage.[1]
  • Josephine Amanda Healy (1849–1883), also went to the convent school in Montreal. After several years with her family in Boston, she joined the order of the Religious Hospitallers of Saint Joseph.[13] She was the third of the siblings to die as a young adult.
  • Eugene Healy (1848–1914), only two when orphaned, was the only Healy who did not achieve as much in life; he seemed to struggle to find a place.[16]


Because of their mother's mixed ancestry, the Healy children were more than half European as well as partially African in ancestry. Much evidence exists that, with the social capital of their education and father's wealth, all of the Healy children were accepted into northern U.S. and Canadian society as "white" Irish Americans.[1]

Martha and Michael, who married and had children, each chose European-American partners of Irish Catholic descent. Their religion had been integral to their lives and they wanted to ensure that future generations of their family would continue to be part of white Catholic society.[1]

In 1865, Michael Healy married Mary Jane Roach, the daughter of Irish Catholic immigrants. They had one surviving child, a son named Frederick Aloysius (1870–1912).[1] According to James M. O'Toole, the historian who wrote about the family and the conundrum of race, Michael Healy

"...repeatedly referred to white settlers [in Alaska] as "our people," and was able to pass this racial identity on to a subsequent generation. His teenage son Fred, who accompanied his father on a voyage in 1883, scratched his name into a rock on a remote island above the Arctic Circle, proudly telling his diary that he was the first "white boy" to do so."


Frederick Healy worked as a newspaperman in San Francisco before becoming a partner in a business firm. On April 12, 1906, he married Edith Rutland Hemming of Colorado Springs, Colorado; they had three sons. Edith Hemming was a daughter of banker Charles C. Hemming, from Jacksonville, Florida. A former Confederate soldier, in 1898 Hemming commissioned and installed a 62-foot (19 m) tall Confederate monument installed at the Jacksonville park in downtown. The next year, the city named the park for him, now known as Hemming Plaza.[17]

Frederick Healy died of typhoid fever at his home in Santa Barbara, California.[18] He was buried with his parents in Holy Cross Cemetery in Colma, California.[19]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p Anne Marie Murphy, "Passing free: Black in the South, Irish in the North, the Healys Slipped the Bonds of Race in Civil War America", Boston College Magazine, Summer 2003, accessed 9 Apr 2010
  2. ^ A.D. Powell, XVIII. "When Are Irish-Americans Not Good Enough to Be Irish-American? Racial Kidnapping and the Healy Family", in Passing for What You Really Are: Essays in Support of Multiracial Whiteness, Palm Coast, Florida: Backintyme, 2005, accessed 8 February 2011
  3. ^ a b c Eileen A. Sullivan, "Review: Look away, Dixieland", of David T. Gleeson, The Irish in the South 1815 - 1877, Irish Literary Supplement, 22 September 2002, carried on Highbeam Research, accessed 7 February 2011
  4. ^ INTERRACIAL VOICE - Guest Editorial
  5. ^ Horace Talbert, The Sons of Allen: Together with a Sketch of the Rise and Progress of Wilberforce University, Wilberforce, Ohio, 1906, p. 273, Documenting the South, 2000, University of North Carolina, accessed 25 Jul 2008
  6. ^ "Eliza Healy (Sister Mary Magdalen)", Blackpast.org
  7. ^ "James Augustine Healy", African American Registry[dead link]
  8. ^ a b "Patrick Francis Healy", American Memory, Library of Congress, accessed 7 February 2011
  9. ^ a b c d "Captain Michael A. Healy, USRCS", United States Coast Guard, accessed 7 February 2011
  10. ^ Irving H. King, The Coast Guard Expands, 1865-1915, Naval Institute Press, 1996, p. 39, ISBN 1-55750-458-X
  11. ^ "Have you been to the "polar bear garden"?, Wise Guide, Library of Congress
  12. ^ "Michael A. Healy", Ice Floe.net
  13. ^ a b c d e Henry Louis Gates, Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, "James Augustine Healy", African American Lives, Oxford University Press, 2004, accessed 8 February 2011
  14. ^ "Eliza Healy, Sister Mary Magdalen, 1846-1918", Blackpast, accessed 9 Apr 2010
  15. ^ Bishop Wilton D. Gregory, "The Gift of Blackness", The Federated Colored Catholics: Background Information, Catholic University Libraries, accessed 7 February 2011
  16. ^ a b O'Toole, James M., Passing for White: Race, Religion, and the Healy Family, 1820-1920, University of Massachusetts Press, 2003, accessed 7 February 2011
  17. ^ City of Jacksonville: Public information, Photo Archive
  18. ^ Colorado Springs Gazette-Telegraph, January 8, 1912
  19. ^ findagrave.com