Passing for White: Race, Religion, and the Healy Family (1820-1920)

The Healy family is an interesting Irish-American and and African-American family.  I did the following book review a couple of years back:

Passing for White: Race, Religion, and the Healy Family, 1820-1920
by James M. O’Toole

Reviewed by John Edward “Ed” Murphy

I first learned of the Healy family in January 1959, when I paged through the new 12 month Catholic calendar. Each month was devoted to a 19th century Catholic who made a significant contribution to American Catholic life. One of the individuals was James Augustine Healy. The short description said that James Healy was the first American negro (the acceptable term for Blacks or African Americans in 1959) to be ordained a priest; and that he later became Bishop of Portland Maine (certainly another first), where he provided distinguished leadership in pastoral work, education, social advocacy, and public welfare. The commentary went on to report that James was born in Georgia to an Irish-born white father and a black slave woman. Nothing was mentioned of any siblings, the names of his parents, or how he got from Georgia to Maine.

My immediate reaction was a mild (to myself) comment, “Isn’t that interesting.”  Over the years I learned more bits and pieces about the famous Irish-American Healy family — and what a family!  I learned that two other Healy brothers were prominent American priests — the Jesuit, Patrick Francis Healy, being the one time president of Georgetown University; and Alexander Sherwood Healy, a canon law expert in the diocese of Boston. From James Michner’s Alaska, I learned that that another Healy sibling, Michael Healy, was a famous captain of the BEAR, a US Coast Guard in vessel operating in the Alaskan waters. And later still I learned that two Healy sisters became nuns with one of them attaining the rank of mother Superior in her community.

But then I learned so much more from Passing for White: Race, Religion, and the Healy Family, 1820-1920 by James M. O’Toole.

Indeed the founder of this family was Michael Morris Healy, born in Ireland (Galway or Roscommon) in 1796. Sometime in the early 1800s he acquired land near present day Macon Georgia, and became a cotton plantation owner. And yes he acquired slaves to work the plantation, including one Eliza Clark.

Unlike other slave owners, Michael did not have a wife in the big house and a concubine in the slave quarters. Laws during the slavery era prohibited interracial marriages, but Michael and Eliza carried out their family life as husband and wife until their death in 1850 (Eliza’s death preceded Michael’s by about three months.) Their union produced ten children — nine of whom survived to adulthood. (One died in infancy)

The Healy children were never treated as slaves, but under contemporary Georgia law, they were indeed slaves. Why? A person’s slave-status was determined from the status of the mother. Knowing this, Michael Healy began to send children North for their schooling. James was first to move North, followed by brothers Sherwood, Patrick, Hugh (another brother), Michael, and sister Martha Ann. Later, after the death of the parents in 1870 the younger children Amanda Josephine, Eliza Dunamore, and Eugene moved North — with Hugh’s able assistance.

All this was happening when the Fugitive Slave Act was the law of the land. Technically all the Healys were runaway slaves subject to apprehension and the law’s subsequent Draconian consequences.

Hugh was the only one of the Healy siblings to ever return to Georgia. By returning in 1851 to retrieve three youngest siblings he placed himself at great personal risk. Under the Fugitive Slave Act, a Black person living north of the Mason Dixon line was at great personal risk. But the risk of a Black person, technically a runaway, returning to Macon Georgia!

O’Toole goes on to chronicle the many achievements and to a lesser extent the disappointments of the Healy clan. I won’t list them in this review. Read them for yourself. But the title, Passing for White .. gives us a hint of the Healys’s lives in 19th century Catholic America. According to O’Toole the Healys did not deny or hide their black origin, many know of it. But the Healys managed to redefine themselves Irish-Catholic Americans.

But that’s enough from me. O’Toole’s Passing for White .. Is a fascinating, well written, and well-researched (34 pages of end notes and a 17 page Bibliography) work. I don’t want to give away the entire book’s content. Learn for yourself about this distinguished Irish-American and African-American family.

Ed Murphy
Falls Church, Virginia, U.S.A.

Views: 1290

Tags: African-American, Books, Catholic, Family, Galway, Irish-American, Literature, Opinion, Roscommon

Comment by Neil F. Cosgrove on July 27, 2014 at 9:10am

Very interesting review.  If I recall PBS did a special focusing on Michael Healy, he is considered a legend in the Coast Guard.  However I do have to question this books title, as it doesn't seem that the Healy children did any "passing for white" as they never, per the sources,  denied their maternal ancestry.  Why does the book's  author say they "redefined themselves as Irish-Catholics"?  They were legitimately both, no redefinition needed.   There is no contradiction here.

The other problem I have is that if these people were as proposed were attempting to "pass for White" in the early to mid-19th Century, then they made a poor choice in redefining themselves as "Irish Catholics".  Remember that this was the height of Nativism and the Know Nothings.  Especially in Yankee New England the Healy's would likely have found more acceptance as African Americans then as Irish Catholics.  We forget that Lyman Beecher (Harriet Beecher Stowe of "Uncle Tom's Cabin" fame father) was one of the principle instigators of the burning of the Convent in Charlestown Mass and in her other writings his daughter seems to have inherited his biases. The implication that identifying oneself as an Irish American was the road to social acceptance in the mid-1800's is historically incorrect.  I think anyone that thinks that someone of African American and Irish ancestry would gain an advantage in emphasizing the Irish American Catholic side in 19th Century America is reading history through a 21st Century lens.

It's a titillating title, but I think it does an injustice in implying that these heroic individuals were somehow flying under false colors, when in fact to their great credit they apparently never did.  

Comment by Jean Sullivan Cardinal on July 27, 2014 at 12:20pm

Thank you for the review, very interesting.

Comment by John Edward Murphy on July 27, 2014 at 1:23pm

Hi Neil and Jean

Thanks for your commentary.

As you point out, the Healys didn’t deny their African-American heritage.  But they seemed to  emphasized their Irish heritage rather than their African-American heritage.  Or perhaps they allowed others to emphasize their Irish heritage.  Why?  My guess is that, in spite of the existing Nativism sentiment in  mid-19th century America, it was easier to be Irish American than African American.  Also, their departure from antebellum Georgia made them fugitive slaves.  Who know, being “reinvented” as Irish- Americans, may have reduced the potential of being arrested as fugitive slaves and returned to bondage in Georgia.   Ugh! 

As you point out Michael Healy was a legendary member of the US Coast Guard.  Passing for White … covers his exploits, particularly his effort to import reindeer into Alaska to serve as pack animals.  (Unlike  sled dogs, reindeer could forage for their own food).  The Coast Guard Cutter HEALY (WAGB - 20) is named for him.   Go visit

DO read Passing for White …  I’ll let Professor O’Toole (Boston College) defend the title selection.  Regardless it’s a great read.

Now go read my Hiroshima story.  I think you'll find that interesting.


Comment by Michael Quane on July 28, 2014 at 7:21am

Very illuminating, John. I first heard of  Michael Healy in a sermon by a  now deceased rector of St. Agnes Cathedral in Rockville Centre, NY. The good Msgr.'s "sermons" were often anecdotes about great Catholics in American history. Not everyone was a fan, but I loved hearing them.

Comment by John Edward Murphy on July 28, 2014 at 1:51pm

Hi Michael,

I think your pastor’s sermon alluded not to Michael Healy (the hell raiser); but to James Augustine Healy (Bishop of Portland), Patrick Francis Healy (the Jesuit and one time president of Georgetown University); or Alexander Sherwood Healy, (the canon law expert).

Still I’m glad you liked my post.  Next go read my post on the Irish Survivor of Hiroshima.

By the way, I see you live in Hempstead.  I was stationed a t Mitchel AFB back in 1957.

Comment by Michael Quane on July 28, 2014 at 2:22pm

You're right John, it was mostly about Patrick. I guess the Fordham in me just blocked out the Georgetown Healy.

Comment by Bit Devine on July 29, 2014 at 12:09pm

And another book to add to my reading list...

Fascinating ... Often in my lectures I elude to what Neil has already mentioned.. the Irish were indeed considered the lowest of the low... perhaps you are correct in stating that choosing Irish over Black was the lesser of two evils when trying to avoid jail, a noose or lashings

Comment by Jim Goulding on August 24, 2014 at 10:09pm

In my reading, the Healys never actively aligned themselves with the African-American nor with the Irish-American communities. Since three Healy brothers became priests and three of the girls became nuns (one left after a short while), I surmise that the Healy conscience was more "Catholic" than African-American or Irish-American. Yes both the Blacks and the Irish were way down on the ladder of society at that time, but through Bishop Fitzpatrick's and the Jesuits mentoring and their intellectual ability, they were destined to make significant contributions to the Church of that time. Also, "passing for white" does not mean "passing for Irish".  See the piece that I wrote here a few months back for a fuller treatment of this extraordinary family:

Comment by John Edward Murphy on August 25, 2014 at 6:41pm

"Healys never actively aligned themselves with the African-American nor with the Irish-American communities."

Yes, you're undoubtedly right.  On the other hand, they didn't seem to have much emotional ties to Ireland.

Joseph Kennedy didn't seem to have any emotional ties to Ireland, either.  Some reports show him being annoyed when he was identified as Irish.  He rightly insisted he was an American.

I liked you commentary above and your linked article referenced above.


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