Every day thousands of students pass by Healy Hall and marvel at its towering steeples and complex intricacies. Few of them realize that the man responsible for this Georgetown trademark was every bit as complex and dynamic as the building bearing his name today.
As the first black president of a predominantly white university, Fr. Patrick Healy, S.J., revolutionized Georgetown and helped build firm foundations for a young university.
Yet Healy’s trek to greatness began not in the hallowed halls of academia, but on the Georgia cotton plantation where he was born on Feb. 27, 1834. The son of an Irish Catholic and a biracial domestic slave, Healy had great obstacles to overcome. Healy’s father Michael immigrated to the United States from Ireland through Canada around 1815. Experiencing great success in a series of land lotteries, he moved to Macon, Ga., where he built his own cotton plantation with the help of 49 slaves. Michael Healy became relatively prosperous and became a prominent businessman in the Macon community.
He soon met a domestic slave named Mary Eliza with whom he fell in love. Michael purchased her from slave-owner Sam Griswold and, although Georgia law forbade it, the couple married in 1829. The two remained extraordinarily committed to each other throughout their lives and their union produced 10 children.
Although all of the Healy children had light skin and often passed as white, they were classified as property in the state of Georgia and banned from attending schools there. According to the state’s “one drop blackness” doctrine, inhabitants with any black ancestors were accorded the same rights – or lack thereof – as slaves.
But Michael and Mary Eliza were committed to seeing that the children received proper educations and, after an exhaustive search, they sent Patrick Healy along with his brothers James and Hugh to northern Quaker schools in Flushing, N.Y., and Burlington, N.J. Although Healy continued to experience bigotry even in the North, he received a top-notch education and continued onto college.
Healy entered the freshman class of Holy Cross College in assachusetts around 1846 where he rediscovered the Catholic traditions which his father had greatly valued and he resolved to become a Jesuit. Upon his graduation in 1850, Healy entered the Society of Jesus and was sent to Europe to continue his studies.
For a man stuck between cultures, Europe proved to be a special intellectual escape. Healy was sent to the Louvaine University in Belgium where he dove into his doctoral studies. In 1865, the year the Civil War ended in his homeland, he became the first black American to earn a Ph.D. During his time in Europe, he discovered a love for travel and visiting new places.
In 1866, he came back to the United States to teach philosophy at Georgetown. His trajectory to the presidency was swift and unprecedented. In the racially charged atmosphere of the 1860s, it would have been impossible had Healy acknowledged his black roots.
Although some Jesuits knew about his background, they said little and Healy continued to pass as white. Showing deft skill both in his research and in the classroom, he was named Georgetown’s Prefect of Studies in 1868. In 1873, Healy became the university’s acting president and on July 31, 1874, he was named president of Georgetown University.
Healy’s tenure as president was a period of great excitement and change for Georgetown. At the time, Georgetown was a small and undistinguished liberal arts college. But Healy’s dream was to develop a gleaming example of a prestigious Catholic education.
He set about restructuring educational frameworks by integrating science into the standard curriculum. He changed the look of the hilltop through a series of beautification campaigns and founded the Georgetown Alumni Association.
Healy’s most visible project began in 1877 when workers started excavating the future site of Healy Hall. His vision was to create a building steeped in the traditions of classical European construction with a massive tower more than 200 feet in the air.
It was to include a library, laboratories, classrooms and living space for students and be a sign of the university’s magnificence.
Construction of the building was a constant struggle and ultimately cost more than $300,000. Healy solicited funds from a wide range of sources, including alumni and local businessmen and was able to scrape enough funding together to complete his dream.
In 1879, Healy Hall opened to much fanfare and has remained an icon of Georgetown well over a century later.
Yet during the construction of the new building, rumors began to swirl about Healy’s racial heritage. Amid bitter accusations that he was of African descent, his health began to fail. While visiting alumni in California in 1881, he fell ill and was forced to resign his position as Georgetown’s president. He remained frail and, although Healy continued his deep spiritual commitment to the Jesuit order, he never entirely recovered. Healy died in 1910 and was interred in Georgetown’s Jesuit cemetery.
Today, the deep legacy of Patrick Healy lives on at Georgetown. He is often called the university’s “second founder” and, despite the fact that Healy never admitted his African roots, historians acknowledge the great groundbreaking role he played for blacks in higher education.
Some of Georgetown’s most prestigious scholarships and fellowships are named after Healy and the greatest architectural achievement on campus grounds bears his name now and into the future.