Last week, President DeGioia accepted a recommendation to scrub the names Mulledy and McSherry from university buildings. The names Freedom and Remembrance took their places. Mulledy and McSherry symbolized what was most odious about Georgetown and the Maryland Jesuits’ history — the conclusion of a century of contest and deliberation about slavery, manumission and race with a mad dash towards a propitious sale.
By contrast, Healy Hall and its namesake, Fr. Patrick Healy, stand as foils in our memory. Healy, after all, was the first black president of a predominantly white institution, as the accolade goes. But for Healy, who desperately toed the opposite side of the color line the situation, was more complicated.
Fr. Patrick Healy was born in 1834 to Mary Eliza — a biracial former slave who had been purchased out of captivity by her soon-to-be husband, Michael. Michael Healy owned 49 slaves on a plantation in Macon, Ga. It was from his mother Mary Eliza that Patrick Healy inherited his vital if contrived one drop rule, which legally classified an individual as black if they possessed even “one drop” of black blood for the purposes of racially discriminating statutes. In his home state, the law considered Patrick Healy to be a slave (such status was usually maternal). So his selection as president of Georgetown in 1873 was nothing short of remarkable. It encapsulates a story of a rise to prominence unexpected for a black American in the mid-19th century. It also mistakenly post-dates Georgetown’s racial progress to 1873, although that transformation came much later.
Patrick Healy’s integration into the Jesuits and his success in society writlarge required him to jettison his connections to blackness. He rose, not just despite, but in opposition to his heritage. The Jesuits called him the “Spaniard” — a name meant to explain his olive complexion.
In the early 2000s, James O’Toole, who studies the Healy family, nuanced the story significantly. Patrick Healy struggled desperately to pass as white for many years. But his secret dogged him. As a young Jesuit, he distanced himself from the darker-skinned members of his family, several brothers in particular. Healy recalled having to endure insults at the College of the Holy Cross in a letter he wrote to Jesuit George Fenwick, a mentor to Healy and an individual whose name appears constantly in the archives in connection with slavery.
Healy self-identified publicly as white. The Jesuits at Georgetown accepted this publicly, if not privately. Healy arrived in Washington, D.C., in the late 1860s when the power of the radical Republicans reached its climax. The project of reconstruction meant milder official policing of the racial line, despite Washington’s status as a Southern city.
But, as O’Toole points out, neither Healy’s claims of whiteness nor the relatively progressive political climate that prevailed in the 1860s in Washington could shield Healy from the racism that abounded in Georgetown. Shortly before Healy arrived at Georgetown, O’Toole highlights, the university treasurer circulated a letter claiming Healy had no brain by virtue of his race.
In fact, the Jesuits were reluctant to make Healy president. Despite acknowledging his qualifications, they constantly referred to his “problem.” A racial problem, plainly. It was mostly a sudden death and a death of alternative candidates that thrust Healy to the top.
From there, Healy’s accomplishments, if plagued by debts, were towering. He reoriented the university within a decade. In a sense, Healy had made it. So much so that he joined many of those around him in snickering at black community members: evoking common white stereotypes by calling them “rather lazy.” He invoked the common tropes of the period against the group — laziness, dim-wittedness — in a private journal entry.
In fact, until the 1960s, Healy was even remembered more or less as he expected: a pioneering, white president of Georgetown. Then the narrative shifted. Healy’s blackness, once a closet-case, became a selling point in the post-civil rights era. His portrait was slashed because he was black — a label Healy never applied to himself. He became the first black president of a predominantly white university. The first black Ph.D. The firsts and plaudits continue. The re-remembering of Healy in the 1950s and 60s offered a way for Georgetown to resituate itself as a racially progressive site.
Really, Georgetown was a racially vexed site and Patrick Healy was one of its chief protagonists. Healy publicly considered himself white and at times seems to even have privately considered himself white. But no doubt years of hounding, snickers and jokes — “hurtful words,” he once called them — troubled Healy’s mind. How could he expunge what he bore from birth? What institutions and people had worked for centuries to identify, maintain and police.
The case of Patrick Healy redirects attention to the long presence of liminal characters. Healy could embrace neither category fully — black or white. But to be white meant to survive and prosper, while to be black meant the opposite, with no other choices. So Healy, made alien, estranged and tormented, passed for white. But passing and being are not, and never have been, the same.
Matthew Quallen is a senior in the School of Foreign Service. Hoya Historian appears every other Friday.