Prologue Magazine

Racial Identity and the Case of Captain Michael Healy, USRCS

Fall 1997, Vol. 29, No. 3

By James M. O'Toole

© 1997 by James M. O'Toole


Capt. Michael A. Healy. (Courtesy Dept. of History, PC(USA), Phila.)

The two episodes of strong words that passed between the captain and the men aboard the U.S. Revenue Cutter Bear in the 1890s were, in their way, entirely unremarkable. As was so often the case, the lonely months at sea had left tempers raw and ready to explode at the least provocation. Ordinary seamen could nurse their silent grudges practically forever, striking back long after the original offense. Captains, by contrast, had to maintain discipline, and since their authority aboard ship was virtually unlimited, the punishments they thought fair could seem arbitrary, harsh, and cruel to those on the receiving end. Thus, the two shipboard confrontations, as described later in court-martial testimony, would seem to warrant little attention today, more than a century later. In the first instance, a balky sailor refused an order from the captain and then intemperately called his commander a "son of bitch." A few years later, another man contemptuously dismissed the captain as nothing but "a God damned Irishman."(1) For their insolence, both men were placed in irons for a couple of hours, and then life on the vessel went back more or less to normal. In the manner of sailors everywhere, the language of these exchanges was sharp and direct, though it seems tame to modern ears accustomed to more graphic curses. Assuming, however, that these two men blurted out the worst thing they could think of in the heat of the moment, their insults are more interesting for what they do not say than for what they do.

The object of anger here was Capt. Michael A. Healy, a thirty-year veteran of the U.S. Revenue Cutter Service, the precursor of the Coast Guard, and commander of the Bear since 1886. In his day, Healy was a minor celebrity, justly famed as the man who directed the ship's work in the icy waters off Alaska. His nickname--"Hell Roaring Mike"--captured his personality as he went about rescuing stranded seamen and explorers, aiding the diminished but persistent whaling fleet, standing up for the rights of native peoples often victimized by their encounters with "civilization," and generally enforcing law and order on America's last frontier. Had the two disgruntled seamen but known the details of his personal life, however, they might have called their captain even more insulting names, and it is this missed opportunity that attracts our interest. Harsher words were possible because Michael Healy was the son of a white Irish immigrant planter in Georgia and a woman who was at once his father's African American slave and his wife. That genealogy placed Captain Healy, together with his equally remarkable brothers and sisters, squarely in the middle of this nation's most enduring problem: the problem of race. Nineteenth-century scientific and popular opinion had prescribed strict rules for determining a person's "real" racial classification, and according to those rules, the Healys were black. They chose to disregard the rules, however, and to define themselves in another way. Thus, the case of Michael Healy and his family permits us to study historical American racial attitudes, the toll they could take in the lives of real people, and the ways in which at least some people could escape the predetermined categories to which others would assign them.

Capt. Michael Healy (seated second from left) with the officers
of the Bear. (NARA 26-CB-2-11)

The family's story in America began with the immigration of Michael Morris Healy from County Galway through the port of New York in 1815. Three years later, this ambitious young man was in Georgia, where he appeared at the courthouse in Jones County, close to the geographic center of the state, to take the oath of allegiance to his adopted country. Following the form prescribed by law, the newcomer addressed himself to no less a person than James Monroe, telling the President that it was "his intention at the time of his arrival in the United States and still is to become a Citizen thereof." He wanted to "renounce forever all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign Prince, Potentate, State or Sovereignty, and particularly," he added, no doubt with a relish only an Irishman could fully appreciate, "the Kingdom of Great Britain." Since he had "behaved himself as a person of good moral Character" and was "attached to the principles of the Constitution," his neighbors could attest to his worthiness, and he became a citizen.(2)

In the second decade of the nineteenth century, Georgia was a place of great opportunity, and Michael Morris Healy had both the drive and the luck to take full advantage of it. He arrived just in time to participate in the lotteries that were redistributing lands only recently seized from the Cherokees, Creeks, and other native tribes, who were steadily being pushed out of the state altogether. Healy won a parcel in the lottery of 1823 and added two more in the drawings of 1832. Located just across the Ocmulgee River from the booming market town of Macon, his lands were in the heart of cotton country, and he put them to use cultivating the newly crowned agricultural "king." By mid-century he farmed fifteen hundred acres assessed at an impressive $8,300, and he owned forty-nine slaves at a time when the average owner in the county had only fourteen. These slaves were worth $34,000, the rough equivalent of half a million dollars today.(3) In a short time, the immigrant had become a very wealthy man.

One of his slaves was a woman named Eliza Clark, who in 1829 became Michael Healy's common-law wife. As with most slaves, details about her life were not considered important enough to record, and she has since been identified only with the vague word "mulatto." We know, of course, that it was common for owners to establish long-term sexual unions with some of their slaves and to father children by them, even as they maintained "respectable" marriages with white women. But neither Michael Morris nor Eliza Clark Healy ever married anyone else; they lived together faithfully for twenty years until their deaths within a few months of each other in 1850. Georgia law made it impossible for this marriage to ever be sanctioned by the state, and there is no evidence that they approached a clergyman to formalize it, something a priest or minister would, in any event, have been forbidden by law to do. Nor could the owner grant his wife her freedom, for manumission had by then been restricted to exceptional cases and could be done only by special act of the state legislature. Even so, Michael Healy publicly acknowledged their connection, referring in his will, first drafted in 1845, to "my trusty woman Eliza, Mother of my Said children."(4) The two were husband and wife in everything but law.

By marrying according to what a genteel twentieth-century writer called "frontier process," the two were violating a powerful taboo, for the strictures that governed racial matters in America seemed to admit no exemptions. The antebellum consensus was that the barrier between the races was and ought to be high. Race was thought to be literally a matter of blood: what ran through your veins and who it had come from determined who you were, once and for all. According to what became known as the "one-drop rule," a single drop of ancestral Negro blood was sufficient to define a person forever as a Negro. Blood might be diluted over time, but its essence could not be changed. This being so, interracial sexuality was regarded with horror, for it mixed two fundamentally different kinds of blood. Because blacks were slaves and slaves were black, the line between the races had to be impenetrable--or at least appear to be so, for the exploitation of female slaves by their masters went on unabated. Southerners and other Americans decried what they called racial "amalgamation," legislated against it, and hid the evidence of it as much as possible, but it remained a dirty little secret that everyone knew.(5)

The children who were born of this racially subversive practice were denoted by a bewildering variety of terms--"quadroon," "octoroon," and many others--all of which tried obsessively to specify the precise degree of racial mixture, and these "new people" became the objects of morbid fascination. Though opinions about them changed, by the middle of the nineteenth century there was near unanimity: mulattoes were biologically weak, morally corrupt, psychologically troubled, and even sterile, just like the animals (mules) from which the derogatory word itself was derived. For this reason, many whites were haunted by the fear that mulattoes, whose blood ostensibly marked them forever as blacks, were sometimes able to violate the American racial code, successfully pretending to be white instead of black. This kind of "passing" was not only a contravention of the natural order of things; it was also a sin made all the more grave by the deception that lay at its core and the nagging suspicion that inferiors were putting something over on their betters. Whites consoled themselves, however, with the belief that passing always exacted a terrible price. All African Americans had to live with the "double consciousness" described by W.E.B. Du Bois, but the dualities for those of mixed racial heritage were even more problematic. The mulatto seemed the quintessential "marginal man," and the tensions of life on the margins were certain to lead to a bad end. Better that one knew one's place and kept to it than to try to be something one was not. If biology had made you black, even by the presence of only "one drop," better to accept that fact and its irrevocable consequences than to struggle vainly against them.(6)

Today, scholars in several disciplines have come to view race not as a biological category but largely as a social and intellectual phenomenon. What really matters is the meaning society assigns to perceived racial differences, meaning that is assembled from elements of science and quasi-science, class interest, outright prejudice, and other factors. Identity, in this view, depends as much on consent as on descent, in one writer's famous pairing: ethnicity and race are as much choices one makes through negotiation with society as conditions one is born with. The perception of physical difference may matter but only because of the historical and ideological context that imparts significance to what we see--or think we see. Group boundaries are more fluid than we often suppose, and individuals have more of a role in choosing their identities than earlier racial theories thought possible. The popular language of race as a hereditary thing fixed by the blood has proved remarkably durable, but the social production of identity is now seen as more telling than any essentialist view in which biology is destiny.(7)

Flying in the face of the racial beliefs and conventions of their time, Michael and Eliza Healy married and produced ten children with clockwork regularity during the 1830s and 1840s; eight of these lived to adulthood. Because Georgia law defined them as slaves--children invariably took the condition of their mother--their father spirited them out of the state one by one as they reached school age. In 1844 Michael Morris Healy had a chance meeting on a steamboat with the Roman Catholic bishop of Boston, John Fitzpatrick, who suggested that the boys be enrolled in the newly opened Holy Cross College in Worcester, Massachusetts. Though the Irish-born Michael Healy had not practiced his religion for many years, the proposal had much to recommend it, and it determined the family's future. Arriving in the North, the children were baptized as Catholics, and it was in that denomination that most of them found their identity and their life's work. James, the oldest boy, became a priest in Boston, helped calm the turmoil of the Civil War draft riots there, and eventually served for twenty-five years as the bishop of Portland, Maine, before his death in 1900. Another brother, Sherwood, also a priest in Boston, was rector of that city's cathedral. He, too, seemed destined for the episcopacy before chronic ill health ended his life just before his fortieth birthday. A third brother, Patrick, became a Jesuit and, from 1873 to 1882, was the president of Georgetown University, where his ambitious academic and building programs earned him the informal title of "second founder" of the school. Two sisters, Josephine and Eliza, entered Catholic women's religious orders; Eliza became the superior of several convents in the United States and Canada.(8)

Where the Healys are remembered today, it is as African Americans: several of them are now celebrated as the "first black" achievers in their fields. They themselves, however, recoiled from such an identification. Wherever possible they sought a white identity, and their status as priests and nuns of the Catholic Church aided them in making that racial choice. This may seem surprising or even disappointing to us, but the reasons not to be black in their society were many and powerful. Most of the siblings were very light skinned, which was an important precondition for shedding the problematic part of their racial heritage. Only Sherwood had the unmistakable physical characteristics that white Americans associated with African Americans. Patrick Healy, for instance, who was described on his passports as having a "light" or "fair" complexion, almost certainly could not have been the president of Georgetown, a school that enrolled mostly southern students in his day, had his background been widely known. The American Catholic Church was no more opposed to slavery in principle than any other denomination, nor any more disposed to aid freed slaves after the Civil War. Perhaps unexpectedly, then, Catholicism gave these siblings their means to pass over the color line. How and why it did so is another story altogether, but the Roman Church offered them opportunities that they wholeheartedly embraced. Reflecting on his own baptism several years after the fact, for example, James Healy summarized his experience and that of his brothers and sisters in simple, unqualified terms: "Then I was nothing," he said of the time when he first came North; "now I am a Catholic."(9)

Racial Identity and Capt. Michael Healy, Part 2


Articles published in Prologue do not necessarily represent the views of NARA or of any other agency of the United States Government.