During a visit at home last year, I saw a billboard advertising a new slogan for my town: “Little Rock, Est. 1722.”
For those who don’t know much about Little Rock, Ark., it wasn’t incorporated as a self-governing town for more than 100 years after that date. So what gives?
The goal of the Little Rock Chamber of Commerce, which developed the slogan and paid for the sign, wasn’t to teach history. It was to depict the city as venerable, and all the other adjectives that we associate with things that have long, storied traditions.
The LRCC had, in effect, reinterpreted history to meet its own purposes.
As an organization with a responsibility to represent my city to the world, their decision was dishonest. But it was definitely not an uncommon one, and it made the people of Little Rock feel good about themselves.
Now, a billboard and a date are just objects. What about the history of a person? What about changing someone’s legacy?
Averting the esteemed reader’s attention closer to home, the most important revision of Georgetown’s history is the story of former President Patrick Francis Healy, S.J.
Some refer to Healy as the “second founder” of Georgetown University. He’s the man who presided over Georgetown’s transition from a small college for Catholic boys to a leader within the worldwide system of Jesuit education. He developed some of our most awe-inspiring structures and institutions. His story is one of an efficient manager, diligent fundraiser and humble priest. And he did it during the difficult period following the Civil War.
As president, one of Healy’s jobs was to raise money for the construction of a new building. And the visible result of his work, Healy Hall, is breathtaking. As government Professor Fr. James V. Schall, S.J., once wrote, “Anyone whose soul is not moved by it, in my opinion, has no soul.”
Well put, padre.
There are only two people whose portraits hang on the wall outside the university president’s office: John Carroll and Patrick Healy.
He’s that important.
Most of us Hoyas, though, forget about all of those achievements and remember Healy only as the first African-American to become the president of a major American university. We pigeonhole Healy into one aspect of history in which he played no active role, rather than celebrate him for all of his contributions and work.
And yes, that’s bad.
Healy never saw himself as black, nor did he identify with anything that could be called black culture. In his own time, he identified himself as just another son of a wealthy Irish planter and as a priest.
Some might even claim that he “passed” as white. (After all, he sure looked white.)
But, if he had really wanted to “pass,” we probably wouldn’t make such a fuss about it today.
The remarkable part of the Healy story is that race didn’t really matter to him, and it shouldn’t matter to us. He didn’t try to hide his genealogy, nor did he advertise it.
It just wasn’t part of who he was. He left it to others to figure out how to deal with the big “R” word.
In his biography of Healy, Boston College Professor James O’Toole explains that when Healy was first appointed to a post at Georgetown, he was initially only allowed to teach the Jesuits-in-training because of the fear that the general student body, which included a very large number of children of Confederate commanders, would cause trouble. Later he took a position as dean of the College, where he was very popular among students.
During Healy’s tenure, only the Jesuits knew of his lineage, and they kept it that way. According to O’Toole, students thought Healy was, at most, a little “Spanish.”
If Healy really was the first black president, almost no one knew it.
And yet, in spite of the small role that race played in Healy’s career at Georgetown, a giant myth has developed around that small fact in Healy’s life about which only a few people knew, and about which even fewer at Georgetown seemed to care.
Modern fascination with Healy borders on celebrating him as a civil rights leader, which he was not. In fact, we are wrong to call Healy a black president at all.
He wouldn’t have.
Healy’s story is so popular because, whether he meant to or not, he serves as an example to us of what a person can achieve regardless of color. We see in him an ideal of equality and acceptance that we would like to see in our own time.
It’s a great story, but it’s one that we made up.
Healy the Jesuit did not become Healy the Great Black Jesuit until long after his death.
Disappointing, I know.
The legacy of Fr. Patrick Healy, S.J., should be celebrated, but we should not be so quick to attach to his story any notion of breaking down barriers of race or any other artificial division that we place between people.
Healy should be celebrated as a good president, a good Jesuit and a good person.
That’s it. And that’s good enough.
D. Pierce Nixon is a senior in the College and a contributing editor of THE HOYA. He can be reached at nixonthehoya.com. DAYS ON THE HILLTOP appears every other Tuesday.