By Mike Gabriele
It reads like an impossible tale only Hollywood could spin. A boy born into slavery becomes the president of a predominantly white university a mere eight years after Lincoln’s assassination. While most were unaware of Jesuit Father Patrick Healy’s background at the time, that’s exactly what happened.
It was not uncommon, even in the early 1800s of the deep South, for a slave owner to fall in love with a female slave, occasionally going so far as to enter into a common-law marriage with her. Michael Healy, an Irish-American plantation owner in Georgia, did just that. After purchasing Mary Eliza as a slave, he fell in love with her, entered into a commonlaw marriage, and fathered seven children. The law of the land at the time, partus sequitur ventrem, dictated that a child’s slave status followed the bloodline of the mother, not the father. All children of Michael Healy and Mary Eliza were therefore legally slaves in the state of Georgia.
On February 27, 1830, Mary Eliza gave birth to her third son, Patrick Healy. Like his siblings, Patrick was legally a slave and forbidden to attend school. Although his father couldn’t change the law, he could send his children north to seek the education and opportunities he desired they pursue. And so Patrick headed to New York at a young age, an Irish
Catholic with African-American roots. It was actually his religious denomination and not his bi-racial heritage that met some resistance at the Quaker school he attended. Though far away, Patrick’s father kept in close contact with his children and soon learned of a new Jesuit college opening in Worcester, Mass. – the College of the Holy Cross – which offered a high school curriculum as well.
Patrick transferred to Holy Cross, where he graduated in 1850. He entered the Jesuit order and spent two years training in Frederick, Md. He then taught at St. Joseph’s College in Philadelphia and at Holy Cross.
Among many accomplishments, Fr. Healy oversaw the construction of Healy Hall, pictured here.
Patrick remained in Europe during the height of the Civil War and was ordained a priest in 1864. He spent a year on retreat in France before returning home to the states in 1866. Though slavery was now officially abolished, the movement’s hero, President Abraham Lincoln, was dead. As the country struggled to rebuild and reunite, Fr. Healy began teaching philosophy at Georgetown University. Although some were indeed aware of his African-American roots, his lighter skin kept many others from ever knowing his lineage. He was able to excel on his merits; in 1868, he became dean of the college, and he was named vice president the following year. In 1873, he was elevated to the university’s highest honor: president. The ink on the 13th amendment to the constitution was hardly dry and Lincoln’s death was still on the lips of a rattled nation when this slave woman’s child became president of a mostly white university.
Fr. Healy’s impact on Georgetown was so momentous, he is often called the school’s “second founder.” He took control of major building projects with an eye for Gothic architecture that he gained while studying in Belgium. The most prominent was Healy Hall, opened in 1881 and still used to this day. He also upgraded the curriculum, preparing it for the 20th century, adding courses in chemistry and physics and expanding the schools of law and medicine.
When he left his post in 1882, he was one of the most renowned Jesuits of his time and a respected leader in the circles of Washington, D.C. He went on to become an advisor to three U.S. presidents and finished his priestly ministry as spiritual director back at St. Joseph’s College in Philadelphia. In 1908, he returned to live at the Georgetown infirmary where he died in 1910 just shy of his 80th birthday. The slave-born Jesuit who advanced to being a successful university president just eight years after Lincoln’s assassination was buried in the Jesuit cemetery on Georgetown’s campus.