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

On This Day – 1.5.1837 Birth of Mother Jones


When your entire family, a husband and four children, die from yellow fever and then your business is destroyed in the Great Chicago fire you might be tempted to just give up. But not Mary Harris Jones, who instead, went on from extreme adversity to become ‘Mother Jones’ ‘the most dangerous woman in America’. That, at least, was how American mine owners saw her and she gave them good cause for their animosity.

Mary Harris was born in Cork City in 1837 emigrating to Canada with her family as a teenager. Later, as a qualified teacher, she moved to the USA and married George Jones, a union organizer, in Memphis, Tennessee. There she abandoned teaching and became a dressmaker.

It was in Memphis that she lost her family to disease. All her children were under five years of age. After that unthinkable tragedy she moved to Chicago and established a dress making business there. In 1871 a huge fire that killed 300 people and destroyed 9 square kilometres of the city took her business and her house with it.

After that she threw in her lot with organized labour and some of the most iconic unions in American history, the United Mine Workers, the Knights of Labour and the Industrial Workers of the Worker, better known as the Wobblies. Given her personal trauma her philosophy and personal motto ‘pray for the dead, and fight like hell for the living’ is particularly poignant. She travelled the USA organizing, speaking and motivating workers and their families to take action to improve their lot.

She was ardently opposed to the use of child labour. In 1903 she organized children to march in their thousands from Philadelphia to the New York home of President Theodore Roosevelt bearing banners with the slogan ‘We want to go to school and not the mines.’

During a West Virginia miners strike she ignored a court order secured by the mine owners and in her subsequent trial the District Attorney, appropriately named Blizzard, declaimed that ‘There sits the most dangerous woman in America … She comes into a state where peace and prosperity reign … crooks her finger [and] twenty thousand contented men lay down their tools and walk out.’

You might well have expected a female radical like Mother Jones to be a suffragist, but she wasn’t. She was opposed to votes for women or female participation in politics. Her philosophy was “You don’t need the vote to raise hell!”. She was of the opinion that men should earn sufficient money to allow their wives to bring up children. Equally unusually she claimed to be considerably older than she actually was, possibly in the interests of self protection, hence the nickname ‘Mother’ Jones.

She became so influential that, in the case of a mining strike in Colorado she was able to force the infamous ‘robber baron’ John D. Rockefeller into a face to face meeting and extract significant concessions from him on behalf of the moners.

Denounced in the Senate as the ‘grandmother of all agitators’ she responded by saying ‘I hope to live long enough to become the great grandmother of all agitators’. This she did, dying at the age of 93

Mary Harris ‘Mother Jones’, labour activist and champion of the working man was born 178 years ago on what, appropriately, has become International Labour Day.