Family  /  Retrieval

Born Enslaved, Patrick Francis Healy 'Passed' His Way to Lead Georgetown University

Because the 19th-century college president appeared white, he was able to climb the ladder of the Jesuit community.

... as President of the United States was to segregate the federal workforce. Following the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd, an ever-widening circle of students on campuses nationwide are re-examining their institutions’ unquestioned genuflection to their white-supremacist heritage.

... as President of the United States was to segregate the federal workforce. Following the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd, an ever-widening circle of students on campuses nationwide are re-examining their institutions’ unquestioned genuflection to their white-supremacist heritage.

But at Georgetown University, students, faculty, alumni, and administration have been re-appraising the school’s racist past for years. In 1838, when the Jesuit school was deep in debt, its president, Reverend Thomas F. Mulledy, on behalf of the Maryland Jesuits, sold 272 black men, women and children to Louisiana plantations to keep the school afloat. Three years ago, Georgetown pulled Mulledy’s name off a dormitory, replacing it with the name of enslaved laborer Isaac Hawkins. Georgetown will now consider applicants who are descendants of these enslaved persons in the same light as the children of faculty, staff and alumni for purposes of admission.

What makes Georgetown’s reflective moment most remarkable, however, and complicated, is that 35 years after Mulledy salvaged the school’s finances by selling human property, the school would be led by a man who, himself, was born enslaved. The story of Georgetown president Reverend Patrick Francis Healy reveals how a university built by enslaved persons, and rescued from collapse by the sale of enslaved persons, saw its “second founding” in the late 19th century under the guidance of a man whom the Jesuits knew had been born black but helped “pass” as white.

During his tenure from 1874 to 1883, Healy transformed the small Jesuit college into a world-class university, expanding the undergraduate curriculum and strengthening the sciences, and raising the standards of its medical and law schools. Healy traveled the country, raising funds for the university, which helped support the construction of the university’s neo-Gothic flagship building that bears his name. Its clocktower, rising over a bluff on the Potomac, was the tallest structure in Washington when it was completed in 1879.

By 19th century racial classifications in America, Patrick Healy was a black man. Yet he largely evaded the legal, social, and economic deprivations that defined the lives of most African Americans. Healy and his siblings identified as white. And despite some of the Healys’ darker complexions “hiding in plain sight,” others went along with it—with help from the Catholic Church.

Patrick Healy was one of nine children born to Michael Healy, an Irish immigrant and a wealthy Georgia plantation owner. Patrick's mother, Eliza Clark, was a biracial enslaved woman and, legally, the property of Michael Healy. James O’Toole, a history professor at Boston College and author of Passing for White, Race, Religion, and the Healy Family, 1820-1920, describes Michael and Eliza’s relationship as a common-law marriage, at a time when Georgia prohibited all unions between whites and blacks, enslaved or free. Children born to enslaved women were considered to be property upon birth, and the state generally prohibited the emancipation of slaves, even upon the death of the slaveowner. In the eyes of the state of Georgia, the Healy children were inescapably black, to be forever enslaved. O’Toole writes, “The twisted logic of slavery depended on the maintenance of clear dividing lines; slaves were black, blacks were slaves, and it had to be that way.”

Michael Healy, wanting more for his children, concluded “the only solution was to get his children out of Georgia." On a boat to New York in 1844, Healy met Father John Bernard Fitzpatrick, a Georgetown priest soon to become the Bishop of Boston, who was recruiting students for the newly ...