seamus dubhghaill

Promoting Irish Culture and History from Little Rock, Arkansas, USA

Patrick Francis Healy Becomes President of Georgetown University

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Patrick Francis Healy, Jesuit priest and educator, becomes the 29th President of Georgetown University on July 31, 1874. He is known for expanding the school following the American Civil War. Healy Hall is constructed during his tenure and is named after him. It is designated as a National Historic Landmark in the late 20th century.

Healy is born into slavery in 1834 in Macon, Georgia, the third son of Irish American plantation owner Michael Healy and his African American slave Mary Eliza, who is the multiracial daughter of a black slave and white slaveowner. The law establishes during colonial slavery in the United States that children are to take the legal status of the mother. By the principle of partus sequitur ventrum, Patrick and his siblings are legally considered slaves in Georgia, although their father is free and they are three-quarters or more European in ancestry.

Discriminatory laws in Georgia prohibit the education of slaves and require legislative approval for each act of manumission, making these essentially impossible to gain. Michael Healy arranges for all his children to leave Georgia and move to the North to obtain their educations and have opportunities in their lives. They are raised as Irish Catholics. Patrick’s brothers and sisters are nearly all educated in Catholic schools and colleges. Many achieve notable firsts for Americans of mixed-race ancestry during the second half of the 19th century, and the Healy family of Georgia is remarkably successful.

Healy sends his older sons first to a Quaker school in Flushing, New York. Despite the Quakers’ emphasis on equality, Patrick encounters some discrimination during his grade school years, chiefly because his father is a slaveholder, which by the late antebellum years the Quakers consider unforgivable. Patrick also meets resistance in the school as an Irish Catholic. When Michael Healy hears of a new Jesuit college, the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, he sends his four oldest sons, including Patrick, to study there in 1844. They are joined at Holy Cross by their younger brother Michael in 1849.

Following Patrick’s graduation in 1850, he enters the Jesuit order, the first African American to do so, and continues his studies. The order sends him to Europe to study in 1858. His mixed-race ancestry has become an issue in the United States, where tensions are rising over slavery. He attends the Catholic University of Leuven in Belgium, earning his doctorate, becoming the first American of openly acknowledged part-African descent to do so. During this period he is also ordained to the priesthood on September 3, 1864.

In 1866 Healy returns to the United States and teaches philosophy at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. On July 31, 1874, he is selected as the school’s twenty-ninth president. He is the first college president in the United States of African-American ancestry. At the time, he identifies as Irish Catholic and is accepted as such.

Patrick Healy’s influence on Georgetown is so far-reaching that he is often referred to as the school’s “second founder,” following Archbishop John Carroll. Healy helps transform the small nineteenth-century college into a major university for the twentieth century, likely influenced by his European education.

He modernizes the curriculum by requiring courses in the sciences, particularly chemistry and physics. He expands and upgrades the schools of law and medicine. The most visible result of Healy’s presidency is the construction of the university’s flagship building designed by Paul J. Pelz, begun in 1877 and first used in 1881. The building is named in his honor as Healy Hall.

Healy leaves the College in 1882 and travels extensively through the United States and Europe, often in the company of his brother James, a bishop in Maine. In 1908 he returns to the campus infirmary, where he dies on January 10, 1910. He is buried on the grounds of the university in the Jesuit cemetery.

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