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Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life

Unlikely Allies: Church and Society in Racial Passing

Event Recap

How did the sons and daughters of a white slave owner and a black slave rise to positions of prominence in the Catholic Church in the late 1800’s? Professor of History James O’Toole addressed this topic at the Boisi Center on October 7th in his talk, “Unlikely Allies: Church and Society in Racial Passing” based on his book Passing for White: Race, Religion, and the Healy Family, 1820-1920 (University of Massachusetts Press, 2002). The book, which was selected as an alternate selection of the Book-Of-The-Month Club recounts the complicated story of the Healy family and the fortunes of their nine children. Born in Macon County, Georgia, where black slaves could not legally marry whites, be freed, nor own property, the children of Michael Healy, an Irish immigrant cotton farmer, and Eliza Clark, a black slave, eventually went on to achieve prominent positions in American society. The oldest son, James, eventually became the second bishop  of Portland, Maine. Patrick, became a Jesuit and ultimately the president of Georgetown University, while another son, Sherwood, served as the rector of the Cathedral of the Holy Cross in Boston and a daughter, Eliza, joined a teaching order and became a superior of several convents in Canada and the United States.

Although not all of the siblings continued in the Church, the majority were successes both inside and outside religion. Despite varying degrees of African American physical characteristics, they were able to pass for white at a time when racial boundaries were distinguished by a single drop of black blood.

In explaining the color blindness of parishioners and the society in which the Healys moved, O’Toole attributes it in part to the status that the priestly role occupied in the minds of white parishioners. When Sherwood Healy, whose physical appearance was the most obviously African American of the siblings, celebrated mass in front of his Irish immigrant parishioners in the Cathedral of Holy Cross, his role as a priest blinded parishioners to his ethnicity. O’Toole also points to the active collusion by some Church officials who baptized and ordained the Healy boys, despite the fact that their parents, by law, could not be legally married in Georgia, thereby making them illegitimate. O’Toole also presented evidence that the Healys actively sought to distance themselves from their African American descent, writing about “negroes” and issues of slavery as if they were from a world apart.

While the racial origins of the Healy children were known in the circles of Holy Cross and among a small circle of Jesuits and Church leaders, the Church served as an active agent in the codification of the Healy’s as white, allowing their natural gifts to shine in brilliant careers.