Patrick Francis Healy, the first Black American to earn a PhD and the first Black President of a predominately white American college, was born into slavery on February 27, 1834 in Georgia. His father was a slave-owner who fathered eight children, including Patrick and his brother James Augustine – the first Black American Catholic Bishop, with his slave, Eliza Smith.
Healy’s father acknowledged paternity and sent his children North to be educated. Patrick attended the Flushing Quaker school in Long Island, NY, and graduated from Holy Cross College in 1850. Patrick then joined the Jesuit Order, becoming the first Black American Jesuit Priest.
Because of anti-Black racism in the US, Healy continued his education in Europe, earning his PhD from the University of Louvain in Belgium in 1865. Healy returned to the US and on July 31, 1874 he was inaugurated the 29th president of Georgetown University. Under his presidential leadership, Georgetown modernized its curriculum and established schools of law and medicine. President Healy also oversaw an expansion and beautification of the campus. Healy Hall remains the most notable building on Georgetown campus.
The Healy brothers provide poignant and painful examples of the complexities of race and racism. It was commonly known that they were children of a “Negro slave woman”. So well known was it, that they had to travel from their home and from their country just to obtain education. Yet, their racial identity was often intentionally overlooked and they took advantage of the fact that they “looked White.” When they graduated from college, they openly identified as White, the racial identity of their father and discontinued contact with their Black mother. They also chose professions that would prevent them from marrying and legally fathering children. The irony that Georgetown’s financial future was saved in the early 1800s by the sale of slaves, and that its rebirth decades later was led by a Black man and former slave must not be ignored.
Joan Potter, African American Firsts: Famous, Little-known, and Unsung Triumphs of Blacks in America (2014)
James M. O’Toole, Passing for White: Race, Religion, and the Healy Family, 1820 – 1920, (2003)
Charles M. Christian, Black Saga: The African American Experience (1995)
Bryan Greene, “Born Enslaved, Patrick Francis Healy ‘Passed’ His Way to Lead Georgetown University,” Smithsonian Magazine (September 2020)