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