On This Day – 6.4.1830 James Augustine Healy, the first black Roman Catholic bishop



There is an ugly word for it in the American vocabulary, where a person is said to have ‘passed’. This occurred, not when they died, or were successful in examinations, but when their skin was light enough, despite their mixed race, to enable them to ‘pass’ as white.

The Healys of Macon, Georgia were accomplished at ‘passing’.

It all began with Michael Morris Healy of Roscommon, born in 1795, who emigrated from the west of Ireland to the USA in 1815 and settled near Macon, Georgia, Gone With the Wind country. There he became one of the more prominent cotton planters in the area and acquired, in addition to his land, a number of slaves, probably around fifty, at a time when the average planter owned less than half that number. One of his slaves was a mixed-race woman by the name of Mary Eliza Clark or Mary Eliza Smith. She caught the eye of Michael Healy, and became his common-law wife. Legislation in the state of Georgia banned interracial marriage, so although Michael Healy never wed anyone else, neither was he allowed to marry Mary Eliza Clark, although that didn’t stop them having ten children together. Legally, Michael Healy, could not give his wife her freedom. Technically, all his children were also born into slavery, as, in the South, children always followed the condition of their mother.

Most of the children were remarkable individuals. It helped that their Irish father insisted that they all get a proper education, and sent them north to Catholic schools above the Mason-Dixon line.

Patrick Francis Healy, for example, became a Jesuit priest. Ironically, the Jesuit order had held slaves of its own in many southern states. Patrick Healy was the first American with African ancestry to win a PhD, and became president of Georgetown University. The growth of that east coast college is largely owing to his efforts in the late nineteenth century.  Eliza Healy became Mother Superior of a convent in Vermont, the first person of African-American descent to attain such a position. Michael Healy had a 20-year career with the United States Revenue Cutter Service. He is reckoned to be the first person of African-American descent to have commanded a federal ship. He’s the only one who might not have been all that popular in the land of his father, because the Revenue Cutter Service is responsible for armed customs enforcement. So, in Irish terms, he was a ‘Revenue Man.’

But probably the most noteworthy Healy sibling was James Augustine Healy. James wanted to be a priest, but because of his ancestry couldn’t study for the priesthood in the south. He was educated, therefore, in Canada and France. In his first posting, in Boston, because of the lightness of his skin colouring, he was accepted as a white Irish-American Catholic, although he made no secret of his mixed-race ancestry. During the Famine years he worked extensively among poor Irish immigrants in the city. Later he became Bishop of Portland, Maine, and subsequently was created Assistant to the Papal Throne, by Pope Leo XIII, with a rank just below that of Cardinal. Healy, despite his background, was, however, no radical. He was the only American bishop, for example, who would excommunicate Catholics for joining the growing nationwide trade union, the Knights of Labour.

Of course, there remains the controversial question as to whether the Healys can be viewed as ‘black’, or whether their three-quarter European origins meant that they should be seen as white. In the north, where they all studied, lived and worked, they were accepted as, and occasionally abused as, white Irish-American. In the south however, the ‘one drop’ philosophy prevailed. This held that if you had a single drop of African blood in your veins, that you were black. They even had a word to describe someone who had a black great-grandparent. They were known as ‘octoroons’, only one eighth African-American, but still black enough to suffer all sorts of discrimination and abuse. Had the Healys remained resident in the south they would not have been educated, and could never have hoped to hold down the exalted positions most of them attained. They were, after all, in the eyes of the law, all slaves.

James Augustine Healy, eldest member of an extraordinary family, and the man who is recognised as the first African-American Roman Catholic bishop, was born one hundred and eighty-eight years ago, on this day.

62594246_1474716304.jpgJames A Healy portrait- Hathi Trust- from Representative Men of Maine by Henry Chase.jpg