Race, Religion and One Family's Story

BC's James O'Toole unravels the history of the Healys in his new book Passing for White

By Reid Oslin
Staff Writer

The three brothers seemed the epitome of a late 19th/early 20th-century Irish-American success story. They were educated, respected, and their religious vocations led one to the presidency of the nation's oldest Catholic college, another to Boston's Cathedral of the Holy Cross.

Assoc. Prof. James O'Toole (History) (Photo by Gary Gilbert)
But James, Patrick and Sherwood Healy had a family secret that stayed hidden for almost 100 years, and had been largely untold until a Boston College historian unraveled the story while working in the Boston Archdiocese archives on an unrelated research project.

Assoc. Prof. James O'Toole (History) found records showing that the three brothers were sons of a multi-racial couple from Georgia, who had sent six of their nine children north in the hopes of concealing their racial identity and thus affording them a chance for a better life. Although the truth about the Healys' background had been generally known for some time, O'Toole decided to craft a more comprehensive narrative.

Recounting the family history in Passing for White: Race, Religion and the Healy Family, 1820-1920, O'Toole provides a look at changing American attitudes concerning race, economic status, religion and social mobility.

The book also details the emerging influence of the American Catholic Church during the late 19th century, as seen through its impact on one family. The nine Healy children embraced the Catholic faith on their road to acceptance in white society, and the Catholic Church in Boston in turn embraced the members of this family, several of whom advanced to influential positions within the Church hierarchy.

O'Toole said that he tried to address the questions of "What is race?" and "How do people get defined racially?" as he compiled his research, then to present his findings in a readable and accessible form.

Interviews with a group of present-day Healy descendents yielded new knowledge, O'Toole said. "Like a lot of research projects, you would pull on one thread and find something else," he recalled. "I just tried to stay out of the way of the story while I was writing it. It was so remarkable."

The story begins in 1818 when Irish immigrant Michael Healy settled in Georgia and quickly amassed a fortune in agriculture. In 1829, Healy married one of his African-American slaves, Eliza Clark, and they had nine children.

Under Georgia law at that time, the children were considered slaves, which led Michael and Eliza to send the six oldest siblings to the north for education and, they hoped, freedom.

"The Healy family was exactly what the Civil War was about," said O'Toole. "It was a question of just what role non-whites would be able to play in this nation."

Arriving safely in the north, the five oldest Healy sons were baptized, enrolled in Catholic schools and eventually attended the Jesuit-run College of the Holy Cross in Worcester. Eldest daughter Martha boarded with a Boston family and later became a Notre Dame nun before giving up religious life to marry and raise her own family.

Three of the boys entered the seminary for the Catholic priesthood, hardly a bastion of anti-slavery thinking at the time. "They actually made their problem [of racial identity] easier by making it more complicated," O'Toole said.

After ordination, the three attained influential posts in the church. Boston Archbishop John Williams, a friend and benefactor, appointed eldest son James Healy to be the bishop of Portland, Maine.

Third son Patrick entered the Society of Jesus, and advanced to become president of the nation's oldest Catholic school, Georgetown University. Georgetown's main administration building, Healy Hall, is named in his honor.

Fourth-born Alexander Sherwood became one of the best-educated priests of his day, and was appointed rector of Boston's Cathedral of the Holy Cross, charged with overseeing the construction of that magnificent edifice.
Brother Michael became a captain in the US Revenue Cutter Service, the forerunner of the US Coast Guard, and was instrumental in charting the waters of the Pacific Northwest. Another brother, Hugh, was killed in a boating accident in New York Harbor while seeing Sherwood off to European study.

Following the death of their parents, the younger members of the Healy clan, sisters Josephine and Eliza and brother Eugene joined their older siblings in the North.

Josephine entered the Sisters of Notre Dame, but died at age 34. Eliza also joined the Notre Dame congregation and later became a superior of schools in St. Albans, Vt., and Staten Island, NY. Little is known about Eugene's life, according to O'Toole.

The Healy family rarely spoke of their interracial roots and the siblings made their career and lifestyle decisions along the lines of the white population of the day. "The Healys' passage across the color line was no doubt grounded in their parents' economic success," writes O'Toole.

The Boston Archdiocese archives offered hints as to the background of James, Sherwood and Patrick, says O'Toole, but it took him considerable effort to get at the truth. "Whenever [the three priest brothers] were mentioned at all, it would most likely be in the context of taking aspects of the careers of all three and treating it if it were the accomplishments of one person. Most people thought, 'It must be just one, because there couldn't be two like him.'

"It turned out that there were three," O'Toole said.

In his research, O'Toole came across one little-known book on the Healys that had been written in the 1950s, but found that many family members living at that time chose not to discuss the family's racial background. Fortunately, O'Toole says, the Healy descendants he spoke to were far more forthcoming.

One family member now in his late 50s remembered learning as a teenager of his family's multi-racial background. "I thought it was the coolest thing," he told O'Toole, "not to be a regular, garden-bred Irish-Catholic family."


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