It reads like an impossible tale only Hollywood could spin. A boy born into slavery becomes the president of a predominantly white university a mere eight years after Lincoln’s assassination. While most were unaware of Father Patrick Healy’s background at the time, that’s exactly what happened.
It was not uncommon, even in the early 1800s of the deep-south, for a slave owner to fall in love with a female slave, occasionally going so far as to enter into a common-law marriage with her. Michael Healy, an Irish-American plantation owner in Georgia, did just that. After purchasing Mary Eliza as a slave, he fell in love with her, entered into a common-law marriage, and fathered seven children. The law of the land at the time, Partus sequitur ventrem, dictated that a child’s slave status followed the bloodline of the mother, not the father. All children of Michael Healy and Mary Eliza were therefore legally slaves in the state of Georgia.
On February 27, 1830, Mary Eliza gave birth to her third son, Patrick Healy. Like his siblings, Patrick was a legal slave and forbidden to attend school. While his father couldn’t change the law, he could send his children north to seek the education and opportunities he desired for them. And so Patrick headed to New York at a young age, an Irish Catholic with African-American roots. It was actually his religious denomination, and not his bi-racial heritage, that met some resistance at the Quaker school he attended. Though far away, Patrick’s father kept in close contact with his children and soon learned of a new Jesuit College opening in Worcester, Massachusetts, the College of the Holy Cross, which offered a high school curriculum as well.
Patrick transferred to Holy Cross, where he graduated in 1850. He entered the Jesuit order and spent two years training in Frederick, Maryland, then teaching at St. Joseph’s College in Philadelphia and at Holy Cross. It wasn’t long before tensions over slavery began tearing at the seams of the country. More and more, Patrick’s mixed race became the subject of contention, and he welcomed the opportunity to study abroad when the Jesuits sent him to Europe for further education. There he made history for the first time. Attending the University of Leuven in Belgium, he earned his doctorate degree, becoming the first American of mixed African ancestry to do so, and certainly the first born to a slave woman.
Patrick remained in Europe during the height of the civil war and was ordained a priest in 1864. He spent a year on retreat in France before returning home to the states in 1866. Though slavery was now officially abolished, the movement’s hero, President Abraham Lincoln, was dead. As the country struggled to rebuild and reunite, Father Healy began teaching Philosophy at Georgetown University. While many were indeed aware of his African-American lineage, his lighter skin kept many others from ever suspecting. He was able to excel on his merits. In 1868, he became dean of the college and vice president the following year. In 1873, he was elevated to the university’s highest honor; president. The ink on the thirteenth amendment to the constitution was hardly dry, and Lincoln’s death was still on the lips of a rattled a nation when this slave woman’s child became president of a mostly white university.
Father Healy’s impact on Georgetown was so momentous, he was often called the school’s “second founder”. He took control of major building projects with an eye for Gothic architecture that he learned while studying in Belgium. The most prominent was Healy Hall, opened in 1881 and used to this day. He also upgraded the curriculum, preparing it for the twentieth century, adding courses in chemistry and physics and expanding the schools of law and medicine.When he left his post in 1882, he was one of the most renowned Jesuits of his time and a respected leader in the circles of Washington, D.C. He became advisors to three U.S. presidents and finished his career as spiritual director back at St. Joseph’s College in Philadelphia. In 1908, he returned to live at the Georgetown infirmary where he died in 1910 just shy of his 80th birthday. The slave-born Jesuit who advanced to a successful university president just eight years after Lincoln’s assassination, was buried and remains today in the campus Jesuit cemetery.