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. Prologue

Passing free



Michael A. Healy, captain of the Bear, U.S. Revenue Cutter Service. Courtesy of National Archives and Records Administration


When Michael Morris Healy and Eliza Clark entered into a common-law union in 1829, they violated perhaps the most powerful taboo of 19th-century America: marriage between persons of different races. Healy was a white planter in Jones County, Georgia; Clark was an African-American slave. American society was horrified by a union such as theirs, and by the attendant prospect of offspring, because of clear, even scientific definition: Race depended, literally, on blood. What came to be called the "one-drop rule" specified that a single drop of ancestral African blood was sufficient to define a Negro. Blood might be diluted over time, but its essence could not be altered.

Under this rule, the children of Michael and Eliza Healy, no matter how fair their skin or European their features, could expect to lead hobbled lives, consigned to the most menial work and subjected to discrimination and violence. But that is not what happened.

The nine Healy children who survived infancy displayed a range of complexions—some "looked" black, some white, others in between. But they all managed to subvert the line between the races. James, the oldest, became a Catholic priest in Boston, and from 1875 to 1900 was the second bishop of Portland, Maine. Hugh was setting himself up in the hardware business in New York City in the 1850s when he was killed in a freak boating accident at the age of 21. Patrick became a Jesuit, and from 1873 to 1882 he was the president of Georgetown University. Sherwood also became a priest and served as the rector of the Cathedral of the Holy Cross in Boston—probably destined, like his older brother James, for a bishop's chair, but he died at age 39. Martha, the oldest girl, was briefly a member of an order of religious sisters in Montreal before she left the convent, married an Irish immigrant, and lived out her days in suburban respectability outside Boston. Michael (pictured above) became a captain in the U.S. Revenue Cutter Service, the precursor of the modern-day Coast Guard. He enforced law and order off the coast of Alaska in the 1880s and 1890s. Josephine became a nun in a Canadian nursing order—she, too, died young. Her sister Eliza joined a Canadian teaching order and served as the superior of several convents in the United States and Canada. And finally, there was Eugene. Only this youngest child seemed to fail. He drifted from job to job, never quite finding himself, occasionally making his living as a gambler and sometimes landing in jail.

What made the Healys' achievements possible? They didn't storm the color line head on. And they didn't succeed entirely on their own. Instead, they allied themselves with institutions that operated uniquely inside and outside American society, permitting them an indirect transit across the race divide. The Healy siblings became white—and they did so at a time when barriers against African-Americans rose ever higher and were patrolled with increasing vigilance and violence.

The story begins in 1815, with the immigration of 19-year-old Michael Morris Healy from County Galway in Ireland. Healy settled in central Georgia, just across the Ocmulgee River from the rising market town of Macon, and gradually acquired 1,500 acres. This was cotton country, the land that Margaret Mitchell wrote about in Gone With the Wind. As a cotton farmer, Michael Healy was a great success. Of the roughly 500 landowners in the county, he ranked 35th in the extent of his holdings, very much at the top of the economic heap. Like other cotton farmers, he owned slaves—49 of them, at a time when the average master in the county owned only 14.

One of his slaves was Eliza Clark, with whom he evidently fell in love. Under the laws of Georgia, and indeed of most other states at the time, marriage between blacks and whites was forbidden. For more than 20 years, Michael and Eliza Healy lived together faithfully, but they were never formally married; in his will, Michael referred to her simply as "my trusty woman, Eliza, mother of my . . . children." It was also illegal for Michael Healy to free his wife, either while he lived or by his will. Freeing slaves required a special act of the state legislature, and was therefore almost unheard of. Technically, the Healy children were slaves too—throughout the South, children always took the condition of their mother. Even though they were never treated as such, Healy could not free them any more than he could free his wife.

As he considered his family's situation, Michael Healy realized that the only solution was to get his children out of Georgia. Disabling as racial attitudes could be north of the Mason-Dixon line, in a northern state the children could inherit his property and dispose of it as they wished. They might even be able to disguise their origins.

Accordingly, around 1837, Michael Healy took his oldest son, James, then just seven years old, to New York and placed him in a Quaker school in Flushing, Long Island. Another northern school, however, would prove life-altering for the Healys. Traveling by steamship between Washington and New York in the mid-1840s, the senior Healy had made the acquaintance of John Bernard Fitzpatrick, the Catholic bishop of Boston. The bishop suggested that Healy send his sons to Worcester, Massachusetts, to attend the newly opened College of the Holy Cross, which then accepted children from grammar school age on up. Healy jumped at the chance. Holy Cross was set on a hill above the town, and was purposely separated, by 40 miles, from the suspicious eyes and nativist passions of Boston. The boys might be anomalous there, especially to the largely southern faculty—mostly Jesuits from old Maryland families—but the school could be a hiding place. And so, in the summer of 1844, the college received four new students named Healy: James, age 14; Hugh, age 12; Patrick, age 10; and Sherwood, age eight. A fifth brother, Michael, then age six, would enroll five years later.

Before their arrival in Worcester, the Healy boys had been, from the standpoint of religion, blank slates. None had been baptized. Now under the tutelage of Jesuits, they were expected to participate in all the religious exercises of the college. James, Hugh, Patrick, and Sherwood were baptized in November 1844 and received their Confirmation the following spring. But from almost any perspective, Catholicism was an unlikely choice for these children of mixed parentage. The record of the American Catholic Church on race was decidedly unimpressive. Wherever slavery was legal, Catholics joined the practice if they could afford to—the Jesuit order had owned slaves in Maryland and elsewhere for two centuries. John Hughes, the archbishop of New York, considered slavery to be "infinitely better than the condition in which [Africans] would have been, had they not been seized" and brought to America in chains. The Catholic newspaper the Pilot spoke casually in 1862 of the "natural inferiority" of African-Americans, proclaiming, "The negro race is happier in slavery than in freedom."

That the Healys could accept a Church whose leading thinkers were convinced of the inferiority of blacks suggests that Catholicism offered something to them beyond its interior spiritual reward—that they embraced it as a new public identity. And indeed, from the time of their conversion onward, the brothers consistently separated themselves from African-Americans. While a student, for instance, James dispassionately repeated in his diary the offhand stories told by classmates—many of them, like himself, the sons of southern slaveholders—about the "niggers" on the farms back home, apparently satisfied that the offensive word did not apply to him or his brothers. Nor did the Healys have much sympathy for abolition. As he grew older, Sherwood defended the traditional Catholic position that slavery was not "an evil in se" and that slave ownership was permissible even if slave trading was not. Slavery might even help "to control & civilize the negro," he wrote.

At Holy Cross, the brothers' racial origins were known—as Patrick later observed, anyone who looked on some of the Healy brothers could easily solve the racial riddle of all of them. But this seemed not to matter much. Massachusetts Catholics had no more tolerant racial attitudes than other Americans, but, isolated as they were in a cool social and religious climate, they were prepared to welcome anyone who chose them.

All four of the older Healys proved to be diligent scholars. In 1849, James was at the head of the college's first graduating class, Hugh ranked fourth in the same class, Patrick first in his class, and Sherwood second in his. Given the brothers' academic prowess and newfound religion, it is not surprising that three of them would eventually choose to enter the priesthood.

With the young men on the brink of adulthood, the family's circumstances changed dramatically. Michael and Eliza Healy were apparently planning to sell their plantation and move north, but they never got the chance. Eliza died in May 1850, and her husband followed her in death four months later. The three children still at home, two girls and the boy Eugene, ranging in age from 18 months to five years, were in danger now of being sold into the actual slavery that was always their legal status. Hugh risked his life by traveling from New York back to Georgia to smuggle them out. He was technically a runaway slave himself and could have been seized if discovered, but by means that remain unknown he managed to get in and out of the state without detection, bringing his siblings first to New York and then to Boston. As the oldest, James became the head of the family, taking on the role of de facto parent and advisor to the others.

James A. Healy, bishop of Portland, Maine. Courtesy of Archives, Archdiocese of BostonOn the family color spectrum—what we know of it—James (left) lay somewhere in the middle. He showed enough traces of African ancestry to arouse, on first meeting, at least vague suspicions about his background. Had the young Healy been anything less than brilliant, Boston's Bishop Fitzpatrick might have thought it futile to groom him for a career in the Church. But groom him he did. James attended seminaries in Montreal and Paris and was ordained a priest at the Cathedral of Notre Dame in 1854. Fitzpatrick prudently ignored the Church law that required a new priest to serve in the diocese of his birth (in this case, Charleston, South Carolina) and brought James back to Boston.

The bishop realized that simply placing James Healy in a parish church, whether on his own or as a junior curate, might cause problems. Would immigrant parishioners accept the ministrations of a man who, as far as they were concerned, was black? Equally in doubt, would fellow priests tolerate such a colleague? James shared these misgivings. "If I could have been as safe elsewhere as here," he wrote just after his return, "I should have desired never to show my face in Boston," where his family circumstances were "generally known" among Catholics.

Boldly, Fitzpatrick decided not to hide Healy but to give him a conspicuous position: that of his own secretary and chancellor of the diocese, a newly created position that made James a sort of chief operating officer and alter ego of the bishop. The gamble paid off. Under the bishop's penumbra, Healy was accepted by Boston Catholics not as a black or half-black priest, but simply as a priest. In 1875, James was named bishop of Portland, Maine, and his ascendancy aroused only isolated grumbling. A priest in Eastport, Maine, complained to the Vatican that local Catholics were "mortified and humiliated to have a mulatto for Bishop," but the letter went unanswered and seems to have been exceptional.

The acid test of James's racial status came in the person of another priest, Augustus Tolton, a former slave who had been ordained in Europe and did missionary work among African-American Catholics in Illinois. In the 1880s and 1890s, Tolton conducted fundraising tours around the United States. Everywhere he went, newspapers described him as "the only Colored priest in the country." To say that Tolton was the only black Catholic priest was to say that James Healy was not black. Nor did James suffer the indignities that blacks usually encountered in the public sphere. During his 25 years as a bishop, he traveled to California and back four times, and never once had to ride in the Jim Crow railroad car. As far as white Americans were concerned, James Healy was one of them.

Fr. A. Sherwood Healy, rector of the Cathedral of the Holy Cross, Boston. Courtesy of Archives, Archdiocese of BostonOf the four siblings for whom we have photographs, Sherwood (left) was the one with the most evidently African-American features, and thus his situation was the most challenging. After Holy Cross, Sherwood attended seminaries in Montreal and Paris, where he achieved an extraordinary mastery of Gregorian chant and canon law, and in 1858 he too was ordained at Notre Dame. Although James Healy was already a success in Boston, Bishop Fitzpatrick hesitated to bring Sherwood home. And, as the national debate over slavery drew to its climax, Sherwood was reluctant to leave Europe. "He feels an unwillingness," Fitzpatrick explained to a papal official, "for reasons which I cannot condemn, to return to this country." Accordingly, the bishop sent Sherwood to Rome for further studies.

Fitzpatrick was always sympathetic to the Healy brothers, but there were limits to what he could do for Sherwood. In 1859, when an opportunity arose for him to nominate Sherwood as rector of a new American seminary in Rome, the bishop concluded that it was "useless to recommend him." Fitzpatrick spelled out the reason in a letter to the archbishop of New York: "He has African blood and it shews [sic] distinctly in his exterior. This, in a large number of American youths, might lessen the respect they ought to have for the first superior in a house." When Sherwood did finally return to Boston a year later with a doctorate in Church law, it was to a post for which he was vastly overqualified: ministering in the House of the Angel Guardian, a home for wayward boys.

Soon, though, Sherwood was playing a wider role in the Boston Church. His musical training, for example, meant that he was always a good candidate to sing the High Mass on special occasions. And if James had become an alter ego for Bishop Fitzpatrick, Sherwood sometimes became the alter ego for his brother. When James vacationed in Europe in the summer and fall of 1863, Sherwood, not yet 30, was made the acting chancellor of the diocese.

In 1870, Sherwood was named rector of the Cathedral of the Holy Cross in Boston, in which capacity he supervised the funding and construction of the new cathedral building. Thousands of ordinary parishioners, most of them working-class Irish immigrants, accepted him with nary a word about his background. In newspaper reports and other documents, he was referred to simply as "Fr. Healy"—just another priest with an Irish name. Parishioners confessed to him, attended his Masses, and took Communion from his hands.

Sherwood displayed little interest in Boston's black community. Despite his appearance, he identified with the white community and became a part of it, hiding—and hidden—in plain sight.

Patrick F. Healy, SJ, president of Georgetown University. Courtesy of Archives, Georgetown UniversityPatrick Healy (left), on the other hand, was to all appearances a white man, but his family history was not so easily shaken off. Two years into his studies to become a Jesuit priest, he was sent back to teach at Holy Cross. "Placed in a college as I am, over boys who were well acquainted either by sight or hearsay with me + my brothers," he wrote to his old mentor, Fr. George Fenwick, "remarks are sometimes made (though not in my hearing) which wound my very heart." Patrick went on to further studies, and then ordination, in Europe. While there, he prayed that "the Society may never have reason to repent of having allowed me to be . . . one of its children"—as he wrote to a friend—in spite of the risk that he might tarnish "its good name by my irregularities."

On his return to the United States in 1866, Patrick was posted at Georgetown University, in Washington, D.C., a school with a largely southern student body that would scarcely have welcomed Healy if his "irregularities" had surfaced. But the Jesuits, knowing of Patrick's background, took the precaution of assigning him to teach within the university's separate division for the training of Jesuits. Once he had passed the test of acceptance, he was made dean, a position that exposed him to students at large. Stories occasionally circulated that Fr. Healy had some "Spanish blood," but that was the extent of speculation about his ethnicity. Patrick advanced swiftly. At the age of 39, he assumed the presidency of what was then the largest Catholic college in the United States. He would go on to oversee a rebuilding of the campus and significant curriculum reforms.

True, he occasionally encountered difficulties within the order; an old Jesuit once said that some of the order's houses declined to receive Patrick Healy as he traveled the country for the university, because no one would ever again sleep in the bed he had used. But the typical reaction to Patrick was more like that of an unknowing student at Georgetown, the son of a former Confederate leader, who described him as "a finished scholar, a remarkable linguist, and the clearest thinker and expounder of his thoughts that I ever met."

Of all the Healys, the fair-skinned Michael (opening photograph) made perhaps the sharpest break with the family's past. Unhappy and rebellious at Holy Cross, he was sent in 1854, at the age of 15, to a seminary in France. But he fled the following year to England and signed on as a cabin boy on a merchant ship bound for the Far East. The seafaring life agreed with him. He returned to Boston in 1863 with a "definite determination" to join the U.S. Treasury Department's Revenue Cutter Service.

Soon after enlisting, Michael received an officer's commission, which would have been impossible if his origins had been known. And in this way his racial status was settled. As his career took him thousands of miles away from the darker Sherwood and James, the family secret was contained. Michael's whiteness was confirmed by his marriage in 1865 to Mary Jane Roach, the daughter of Irish immigrants, and by the birth of their fair-skinned son, Fred.

Michael went on to enjoy a picturesque and distinguished career in Alaska, attaining the rank of captain in 1883. One of his best-known exploits was a project to introduce reindeer into the northern territory. He had noticed, on periodic visits to Siberia, that the Chukchi people there were more prosperous than Alaska's natives because they had domesticated reindeer and used them for food, travel, and clothing. Seeking to improve the Alaskans' lot, he made dozens of trips to Siberia to buy reindeer and bring them back. News of his efforts spread far. The irony notwithstanding, Michael Healy became the most famous "white man" in Alaska. In the far north, he was "a good deal more distinguished," the New York Sun reported in 1894, "than any president of the United States or any potentate of Europe."

But Captain Healy also had his troubles. Harsh and authoritarian aboard ship, he was once court-martialed for inflicting cruel punishments on his crew, a charge of which he was acquitted. He was not so lucky in 1895, when he was court-martialed for repeated drunkenness. He was convicted, and only narrowly escaped dismissal from the service. The proceedings, however, were as notable for what they did not reveal as for what they did. During a shipboard altercation, a passenger had hurled at Captain Healy an ethnic slur, apparently the worst thing he could think of in the heat of the moment. The captain, he had blurted out, was nothing but "a God damned Irishman."

(continued below)



Tom Riley ’65 recalls being nine years old when he first heard about the “family conundrum.” His uncle Cornelius related the story: How when he and Aunt Betty were planning to be married, grandmother Bess “introduced him to the fact that we were part African-American.” The prospective groom’s reply, a cheery reference to the family’s suburban Boston circle of friends and acquaintances, was, “Well, you know, Bess, everybody knows that.”

Riley, dean of the college of arts, humanities, and social sciences at North Dakota State University, is the great-grandson of Martha, the oldest of the Healy girls. After a brief time in the convent, Martha had moved to Boston to be near her brother James, and she married Jeremiah Cashman, a young upwardly mobile Irishman, in 1865. Their daughter Elizabeth married Matt Cunningham, owner of several grinding wheel companies. And the Cunningham’s daughter Virginia wed Dr. Joe Riley ’35, Tom’s father.

According to Riley, his grandmother Bess, her sisters, and Martha used to pass long summer visits with Bishop James Healy on Casco Bay, in Maine. But his grandmother never talked to him much about Martha. Bishop Healy’s accomplishments were well known to the Riley offspring, however, and those of Georgetown’s Patrick Healy somewhat less so. But Michael Healy—“Hell Roaring Mike,” as a modern Coast Guard history calls the captain of the Bear—was the mainstay of family legend, and Riley’s Aunt Betty narrated a memorable tale of a bloody encounter between “Captain Mike” and Indian hostage-takers over a ransom of blankets.

In his book Passing for White, James O’Toole conveys through letters and individual histories the sanctuary of family that the Healys maintained as they monitored one another’s welfare and took up companionable orbits, even when for some of them it would have been expedient to cut connections. And as Riley suggests, they passed their allegiance and protectiveness on: “Aunt Betty (Elizabeth), Grandmother Bess—their names, of course, go back to Eliza, who was Michael Morris Healy’s, what would you say? common law wife.”

Healy descendant Tom Riley ’65 with a model of the Bear. By Dan Koeck

Riley recalls a spring break at BC when a number of his classmates—many of whom knew his ancestry—planned a trip to Selma, Alabama, to join the civil rights protests. “My grandmother was so upset by the idea of my going down there. And I couldn’t understand exactly why,” he says. “I ended up not going. She obviously was very worried about passing, and what that meant, but by the 1960s, my generation was kind of proud of our background.”

In 1997, Riley traveled to Macon, Georgia, to find the graves of Eliza and Michael Morris Healy. He introduced himself at the town’s Tubman African-American Museum, and the reaction, he says, was “a little bit of shock.” The woman he spoke with knew of the Healys’ achievements up north, “but had lost track of the family after that. I said, ‘Well, you know, the family kind of passed.’ And she said, ‘Honey, we all did what we had to do.’”

"The Healys were talented,” says Riley, “but they weren’t necessarily any better or worse than anybody.” The siblings had “no choice” when they sold their father’s plantation and slaves, he says, “but what that generation accomplished was built to some extent on the backs of the people whom they sold.” The site of the Healy plantation, called River North until about five years ago, is now called Healy Point and includes the Healy Point Country Club.

Riley did find the grave plot. It had been built around 1851, after the senior Healy’s death, by the second oldest son, Hugh, who braved the Fugitive Slave Act to return south and rescue his youngest siblings, including Martha. The plot is rectangular, about 12 feet per side, enclosed by a stone wall three-and-a-half feet high. A spindly tree grows out of the inside. “I had looked at several other grave plots in the area,” says Riley, “and they all had gates on them.” The Healy plot “had no gate. It was just a big square, as if the idea were to keep out the rest of this world.”

Anna Marie Murphy

(continued from above)

As might be expected of the 19th century, the lives of the three Healy sisters were less storied. No photographs of them survive. But they too defied the expectations of race. They were educated at a convent school in Montreal, across the street from the seminary attended by James and Sherwood. The star of the three was Eliza, the youngest girl, who became Sr. St. Mary Magdalen and directed an academy in St. Albans, Vermont, for 15 years. She helped to establish a college for her order, the Congregation de Notre Dame, on Staten Island, and, when the double liability of being racially mixed and female is taken into account, her accomplishments are as impressive as those of her brothers.

Contemplating the lives of the Healys, we are left wondering how they could have achieved so much.

One answer may be that, in Catholicism, they found a perfect ally. The Roman Church was largely separated—even self-separating—from the rest of American society. It had its own distinct systems of preparation, activity, and promotion, operating mostly out of sight of nonmembers. Catholicism served as a useful intermediary for the Healys; it enabled them to "triangulate" around the problem of racial identity. They became white, in effect, by first becoming Catholics. No doubt the Revenue Cutter Service played a similar role for young Michael.

The Healys' passage across the color line was of course smoothed by their father's economic standing. None of their achievements would have been possible if they had not inherited his wealth. The siblings enjoyed the prolonged adolescence of schooling. They could afford homes in the suburbs and travel in Europe. They cultivated the bearing and the tastes of the well-to-do because they were genuinely of that class. And their wealth confirmed their whiteness.

The ways in which they defined themselves as sexual beings provided another boost. They each had to confront the taboo against interracial sexuality. The three Healys who married all chose white spouses, and that seemed to settle the race question: White spouses meant that they were white. For the others, religious celibacy allowed them to sidestep the issue altogether.

A century and more later, the Healys' choice of whiteness over blackness may strike some as unfortunate or even wrong. "Passing" remains a controversial word and a suspect idea, though for different reasons now than in their day. Then, it meant breaking society's rules. Today, it suggests a lack of pride in one's heritage. And should we even claim blackness for the Healys, when they did not? Should we praise them as the first black bishop, or university president, or captain, or religious superior, when they wanted no such honor?

From the complicated moral terrain of their lives, the Healys speak to an America still struggling with the quandaries of race. In 1900, W.E.B. Du Bois predicted that the problem of the 20th century would be the problem of the color line, and he was surely prophetic. We know now that more than a single century will be needed to resolve that problem. As we continue to try, we should note that the Healys' predicament is becoming more common. Sociologists tell us that ours is a time when ethnic lines are increasingly unclear. By the year 2050, more or less, the United States will be a nation in which no one race, traditionally defined, will constitute a majority. And intermarriage is on the rise.

Unusual in their day, the Healys now seem the forerunners of a new reality. Perhaps the lesson they offer us lies in how these nine individuals managed to get on with their lives and take into their own hands the all-important question of who they were.


James M. O’Toole is a professor of history at Boston College. His essay is adapted from Passing for White: Race, Religion, and the Healy Family (2002).

Photos (from top):

Michael A. Healy, captain of the Bear, U.S. Revenue Cutter Service. Courtesy of National Archives and Records Administration

James A. Healy, bishop of Portland, Maine. Courtesy of Archives, Archdiocese of Boston

Fr. A. Sherwood Healy, rector of the Cathedral of the Holy Cross, Boston. Courtesy of Archives, Archdiocese of Boston

Patrick F. Healy, SJ, president of Georgetown University. Courtesy of Archives, Georgetown University

In box: Healy descendant Tom Riley ’65 with a model of the Bear. By Dan Koeck

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