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

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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.

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)

The younger Michael Healy took a different course; he chose, in a sense, to wear a different kind of uniform from the religious garb of his siblings. Born in 1839, he followed the well-worn path of his older brothers from Georgia to Holy Cross College. He was, however, an independent and often difficult lad, and he kept running away into the surrounding countryside, never getting very far. He was also sometimes subjected to the jibes of his classmates. Though he was very fair in complexion, students at the school who had known the other members of the family, especially the dark-skinned Sherwood, often taunted Michael about his mixed race background. "Remarks are sometimes passed which wound," his brother Patrick, back at the college for a time as a teacher, told a friend. "You know to what I refer," he added, unwilling to commit the family's racial secret to paper. "The anxiety of mind caused by these is very intense."(10) Young Michael's own reactions were not recorded, but these experiences, coming when he was just a teenager, seemed to breed in him an aggressive personality, one that left him hot tempered and eager to prove himself before anyone could make unwelcome "remarks."

By the beginning of the 1854 school year, other academic arrangements were necessary for Michael. He was "a source of great anxiety to us," Patrick reported, and "his conduct hitherto gives us no reason to hope for a change." James Healy, acting now in the role of substitute parent, was just then completing his seminary training in Paris, and he hit on the idea of bringing Michael to France and enrolling him in the famous seminary at Douai—but not "to make a priest of him," he said, realizing that some things were out of the question. Rather, this move would "give him a chance to redeem his lost time and character." Running away from the French school was more difficult, but it also opened up more exotic possibilities, and Michael rose to them. In the summer of 1855, he fled to England, and there he felt the pull of the sea, taking a berth as a cabin boy on a merchant ship bound for the Far East. In later life he would carefully revise his biography for these years, saying that this had all been arranged by his parents—they had been dead for five years by then—"in order to punish me for my misconduct."(11) In fact, the idea had been his alone, and it set him off toward his true calling.

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Michael Healy's letter of application to the Revenue Cutter Service claimed that his parents "procured for me a birth [sic] as boy," when in reality he ran off to sea. (NARA, Records of the U.S. Coast Guard, RG 26)

If we can believe his own later account, he spent the next several years wandering the world: India, China, Africa, the Caribbean and the Mediterranean, England, and America. He had a real aptitude for the work, and he rose through the lower ranks to first mate. The life was "comparatively easy, having never suffered actual shipwreck," though lesser disasters were met and surmounted. By the time of the Civil War, he was in Boston with much of the rest of the family, and he was filled with a "definite determination" to continue his seaborne life in the Revenue Cutter Service. Part of the Treasury Department, the service was a civilian agency that supervised the coastal trade, pursued and arrested smugglers, enforced treaties regulating the international fisheries, and provided emergency assistance on the high seas. Enlisting in September 1863, Michael Healy made his formal application for a commission a year later. He was just twenty-five, but his experience was impressive: "have been to sea for nine years, and have been three times second officer and once first officer of a brig." He had not done as well as he had hoped on the written examination, but captains under whom he had served attested to his ability and promise.(12)

He was also able to marshal some important political endorsements. By now, his brother James, who had hoped for redemption of his character a decade before, was clearly on his side. More to the point, he was also in a position to be of practical help in securing an officer's rank. James had become the chancellor of the Catholic diocese in Massachusetts and secretary to its bishop; in fact, during much of the Civil War, while the bishop himself was in Europe in a vain attempt to recover his health, James Healy was the de facto leader of Boston's growing Catholic community. That role put him in regular contact with some very important people who were now encouraged to support Michael Healy's cause. John A. Andrew, the staunchly pro-Union governor of Massachusetts, wrote to Washington, urging swift and favorable action on the appointment. "I do not know [Michael] Healy myself," he explained to a Republican ally in the capital, "but I am well acquainted with his brother, Revd. James A. Healy, the Secretary to the Bishop of this Diocese; and if one can argue from the qualities of a clergyman to those of a sailor, and the two brothers are alike, I should say that you would have few brighter and more capable young officers in your Revenue Marine than Healy." Other church contacts paid off as well. The bishop of Portland, Maine, who had almost certainly never met the candidate, sent a recommendation directly to the Secretary of the Treasury, William Pitt Fessenden, who happily enough was from Maine. All the lobbying paid off, and by January 1865 Michael Healy's appointment to the rank of third lieutenant came through.(13)

He had found a career in which his racial heritage, were it known, might not have been quite the disability that it was elsewhere. Work on the sea offered unusual opportunities to African Americans throughout the nineteenth century: aboard ship, raw ability and level-headedness in a crisis simply counted for more than skin color. Moreover, during the war, the U.S. Navy had recruited more free blacks and former slaves than the reluctant army, though it drew the line at commissioning them as officers.(14) Against this background, Michael Healy was less likely to suffer disadvantage from a society that, in spite of his physical appearance, was still prepared to define him as black because of his mother's racial classification. He was unwilling to test that possibility, however, for he and his family had come to identify themselves insofar as possible with the white community. Some of those endorsing the young officer's case knew his mixed racial background—others surely did not—but none of them ever mentioned it, then or later. Like his brothers and sisters, he defined his own racial status as white, and his decidedly light skin permitted him to do so. The taunts he had endured at school had only reinforced his intention to put behind him any suggestion of blackness, and his new career could insulate him from similar insults in the future, just as his siblings' careers in the Catholic Church insulated them. His own embrace of whiteness was also confirmed by his marriage to Mary Jane Roach, the daughter of Irish immigrants to Boston, in January 1865, just one week after his Revenue Cutter Service appointment became official.(15) For the remainder of his career, all those who met him—fellow officers, crew, and others—simply assumed that he was white.

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The revenue cutters Corwin, Excelsior, and Bear in Dutch Harbor, Unalaska. (NARA 26-CB-2-63)

Healy was a capable officer, and his progress up the service ladder was steady. His first assignments were on the east coast, but by the middle of the 1870s, he was posted to California for duty in the Arctic fleet. The United States had only recently purchased Alaska, and while most of the government settled into a pattern of ignoring the territory, the Revenue Service took it upon itself to establish a presence there in the interest of fundamental law and order. Several cutters were based in San Francisco and Oakland, but every spring they would make their way up the coast to Washington State before striking out across the open sea for the Aleutians. From headquarters on Unalaska Island, they would spend the summer cruising the Bering Sea and Straits, putting in at various places along the Alaskan coast and at the Pribilof and other small islands. These were the prime seal rookeries, and the Revenue Service waged a constant and often unsuccessful battle against illegal seal hunting. The ships would then work their way around the top of Alaska, heading as far east as Point Barrow. These waters had become the principal hunting grounds for the American whaling fleet, which was enjoying its last few years of prosperity. The work was dangerous and unpredictable, with the ice pack never more than ten miles offshore. As the summer advanced and the ice began to move in, cutters and whalers alike would break south, but not always fast enough. Officers like Mike Healy helped pull many ships out of the ice, rescued the stranded survivors, and more than once brought back the frozen bodies of the less fortunate. With only minor blotches on his record, Healy was commissioned a captain in March 1883.(16)

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

Three years later, Captain Healy had what might be considered a second marriage—this time to a ship called the Bear. Built in Scotland as a whaler, it had been acquired by the United States in 1884 and refitted for Arctic duty. It was by far the biggest vessel the Revenue Service had in the area, two hundred feet long and reinforced with heavy steel plating that could take it confidently through the ice. With a crew of nine officers and forty men—most of whom, like their captain, spent their entire careers in the far north—it could do eight knots under sail and more than nine when its steam engines were put to use. Its first assignment had been to participate in the famous expedition to find the Greeley exploration party in Alaska, and several decades later it would go to the South Pole with Admiral Byrd. During the decade in which Michael Healy was its captain, the Bear was not merely a useful ship; it was, as the official historian of the Coast Guard has said, "a symbol for all the service represents—for steadfastness, for courage, and for constant readiness to help men and vessels in distress."(17)

For sheer romance, Healy's time in command has much to offer. The hard work of rescue and law enforcement, each episode an adventure in itself, became routine. The ship carried the mail and agents of the Treasury Department and other government agencies to the region and brought them home again. More than once the territorial governor was aboard, and suspects and witnesses in various crimes, ranging from liquor smuggling to murder, were brought down to California to face justice. The vessel aided the coast and geodetic surveys, which were engaged in basic mapping of the area, and various missions of exploration also relied on her. Most interesting of all was the Bear's role in a plan to promote the economic self-sufficiency of Alaska's natives. With the decline of seal hunting, many groups of Aleuts and Inuits had fallen on very hard times, and the introduction of alcohol by settlers from "below" had only, in the view of many observers, made matters worse. Captain Healy had noticed, however, that the tribes across the Bering Straits in Siberia were more prosperous because they had successfully turned to the herding of domesticated reindeer. Accordingly, together with Sheldon Jackson, the great Presbyterian missionary to Alaska, Healy hit on the idea of importing reindeer to the American side so the peoples there could do the same. Beginning in 1891, he shuttled back and forth between the two continents, winching the animals aboard the Bear, twenty or more at a time, and transporting them across. With only uncertain federal support for the program, the plan was never the success Healy and Jackson had hoped for, but their efforts showed a genuine concern for Alaska and its people at a time when that was rare for representatives of the United States.(18)

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Lapland herders assist the Bear's crew to transport reindeer from Siberia in Healy's scheme to alleviate poverty and starvation among the Aleuts in Alaska. (NARA 26-G-60-03-16(3))

His work as commander of the Bear made Captain Healy, a New York newspaper said, "a good deal more distinguished . . . in the waters of the far Northwest than any president of the United States or any potentate of Europe. . . . If you should ask in the Arctic Sea, Who is the greatest man in America?' the instant answer would be, Why, Mike Healy.'" Once, an "innocent" from the effete East inquired who he was and got the succinct answer: "He's the United States." Unsolicited testimonials were regularly sent to Washington on his behalf. In 1889 more than fifty masters and owners of whaling ships praised "his long experience in Arctic navigation, his knowledge of the ice and currents, [and] his promptness of action in rendering assistance." His wife, who frequently accompanied him on his summer-long voyages, basked in the honors accorded him. When the Bear pulled into one island settlement, the Russian Orthodox missionary priest in charge of the village ordered flags flown and churchbells rung for the heroic captain. "I assure you," Mary Jane Healy confided in her diary, "it delighted me much to see so much respect paid to my husband."(19)

Not even two court-martial trials—the first in 1890, the second in 1896—diminished the esteem in which most people held him. The transcripts of these trials, now part of the Coast Guard records in the National Archives, show that he had always taken a no-nonsense approach to command, and this could get him into trouble. His punishment of certain members of his crew led to charges of brutality, and full investigations were ordered. On both occasions, he was accused of particularly severe forms of punishment, including "tricing" offenders. This procedure consisted of tying a man's hands behind his back and then hoisting him up by the wrists until his feet were just above the surface of the deck, leaving him there for about five minutes. Hanging in that position was very painful, and if the man succumbed to the appealing temptation to touch his feet to the deck for relief, his arms were bent further back, and the pain redoubled. This traditional form of nautical punishment was still technically permissible in the Revenue Service, though it had become rare and was soon after abandoned, in part as a result of the graphic testimony in Healy's trials. Compounding his offense, his accusers maintained, the captain had been drunk on both occasions, a charge that brought supporting protests from temperance advocates on shore, who apparently wanted to make an example of him as part of their general campaign against the use of liquor in the service. He was fully acquitted at the first trial: the whole case had been trumped up, one newspaper reported, by those who "knew nothing" about life in the Arctic and who simply wanted to besmirch the reputation of "a good and faithful officer."(20)

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Healy was demoted in 1896 after his second court-martial for drunkenness. (NARA, Records of the U.S. Coast Guard, RG 26)

His second trial in 1896 did not go as well. Stories of abusive treatment of his men persisted, and this time the charges of drunkenness seemed true. On the morning of Thanksgiving Day 1895, while the Bear lay at anchor in Sausalito harbor after having just returned from its yearly Arctic cruise, Healy was "disgracefully intoxicated" and spat in the face of one of his junior officers. Worse, witnesses said, the captain had been drunk repeatedly while in command of the vessel all the previous summer and had even staggered off the dock into the water at Unalaska "to the great mortification of officers assembled at a social gathering." A sympathetic panel of Revenue Service officers had to find him guilty, and he was punished with removal from command of the Bear. Reprimanded and dropped to the bottom of the captain's list, he managed to redeem himself by rising to the top again. In 1900 he was given command of a new ship, the McCulloch, but his troubles persisted. While piloting that ship from the Aleutians back to Seattle in July of that year, he apparently succumbed to drink yet again. While intoxicated, he spoke sharply to a female civilian on board; when his men restrained him, he threatened to kill himself. Though he dried out, he had snapped, and an extended psychotic episode ensued: tied up and confined to his cabin, he managed to break the crystal on his watch and made a messy but unsuccessful attempt at slashing his wrists. Once back in port, he was placed for a time in a marine hospital, where he finally came to his senses. Though restored to the captaincy of yet another cutter, he retired from the service in the fall of 1903 and died of heart failure the following summer.(21)

Despite these sad last chapters in the story of his life, Mike Healy had a distinguished career in the Revenue Cutter Service, but his successes were possible in large measure because he was not known to be partly of African American heritage. Whenever he spoke about his work, he made it clear that he saw only two kinds of people in Alaska, "natives" and "white men," and he used the latter term to denote anyone who was not a native, including himself. So long as his ship was nearby "the Natives are . . . gentle and peaceful," he reported to a superior in Washington, "but I believe they would not hesitate to take advantage of . . . white men" in isolated camps. He repeatedly referred to white settlers as "our people," and was even able to passed this racial identity on to a subsequent generation. His teenage son Fred, who accompanied his father on a voyage in 1883, scratched his name into a rock on a remote island above the Arctic Circle, proudly telling his diary that he was the first "white boy" ever to do so.(22)

The two hot incidents with which this essay began indicate how successfully Captain Healy had established his identity as something other than an African American, how successfully he had evaded the "one-drop" rule. In those confrontations with his disrespectful and mutinous subordinates came a significant racial test. Can we really suppose that these two ordinary sailors were restraining themselves, calling him a "God damned Irishman" when another word would have been the more hurtful and insulting, had they only known to use it? Is it not more likely that, given the chance, they would have called him a "black son of a bitch" rather than simply a "son of a bitch"? Why did the question of his race never even come up in his contentious trials and the newspaper coverage of them? And what are we to make of a fellow officer in the Revenue Service, a man apparently sympathetic to the political nativism of the 1890s, who a few years before had told Healy that he had "no place as an officer of the U.S. government" because he was a Catholic?(23) Wouldn't that man have found a more telling reason to argue Healy's disqualification if he had any inclination of his background? No, we are probably right to presume that people are most truthful and least calculating when they are calling other people names. The absence of racial insult in these cases indicates the success with which Captain Healy was able to define himself as white rather than black.

Today the Coast Guard is today building an icebreaker that it will name for him in honor of his role as the first black captain in the service—an identification about which he would have been, at best, ambivalent. In spite of the opportunities that African Americans might have had on the sea or on the untamed frontier, Michael Healy dared not present himself, or indeed even think of himself, as black. His siblings had made the same choice. His brothers James, Sherwood, and Patrick all spoke of "the negro" as if they were talking about someone else, even during Reconstruction, when the status of blacks in America was the most important public issue of the day.(24) No matter how much ability or courage Michael Healy had in doing his duty, his advancement in the Revenue Service during the 1880s and 1890s, just as Jim Crow legislation was taking hold in the South and racial discrimination was hardening North and South, would surely have been impeded had his racial origins been known. If he was to have his career, it had to be as a white man.

Such choices and deliberate decisions on his part were not supposed to be possible, for a person's race was thought to be settled by that unalterable matter of blood. In the case of Michael Healy and his family, however, we see that racial identity could be not a given, but rather a matter of one's own choosing. Moreover, the apparent ease with which they made the transition from black to white is striking. Perhaps individuals do indeed have more choice in such matters than we have thought. Perhaps crossing the color line was neither so difficult nor so personally costly as we have supposed. Beyond that, the lives of the Healys demonstrate the means by which racial choices may be made and the important role that intermediate institutions and identities play in softening the predetermining power we are disposed to assign to race alone. In finding a third "thing" to be--Catholic priests and nuns in the case of his siblings, a government officer in Michael Healy's case--they could at least partially escape the effects of the stark polarity between black and white, and in so doing claim a power of their own.


1. Testimony of Michael A. Healy, Mar. 20, 1890, in "Charges Against RCS Officers: Capt. M. A. Healy," box 11, Records of the Revenue Cutter Service, Record Group 26, National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, DC (hereinafter, records in the National Archives will be cited as RG __, NARA); "Address of the Official Prosecutor," [January 1896], box 12, ibid.

2. Michael Healy's naturalization oath, Apr. 3, 1818, is in Deed Book K (1818–1819): 144, Jones County Courthouse, Gray, GA.

3. I have reconstructed Michael Healy's land and slave holdings from the records of the Jones County Court of Ordinary, microfilm copies of which are available in the Georgia Department of Archives and History, Atlanta. For an understanding of his social and economic context, see Joseph P. Reidy, From Slavery to Agrarian Capitalism in the Cotton Plantation South: Central Georgia, 1800–1880 (1992), and William T. Jenkins, "Ante Bellum Macon and Bibb County" (Ph.D. diss.: University of Georgia, 1966).

4. Michael Healy's will, dated Feb. 28, 1845, and the codicil to it, dated July 6, 1847, are both in Jones County Will Book C, pp. 412-416, microfilm copy in the Georgia Department of Archives and History. He could not actually use the word "wife" to describe Eliza, for that was a legal impossibility and to do so would have risked invalidating the will completely. For similar cases of interracial marriage in antebellum Georgia, see Adele Logan Alexander, Ambiguous Lives: Free Women of Color in Rural Georgia, 1789–1879 (1991), and Kent Anderson Leslie, Woman of Color, Daughter of Privilege: Amanda America Dickson, 18491893 (1995).

5. The classic studies of white American attitudes about race are Winthrop D. Jordan, White Over Black: American Attitudes Toward the Negro, 15501812 (1968), and George M. Fredrickson, The Black Image in the White Mind: The Debate on Afro-American Character and Destiny, 18171914 (1971). On interracial sexuality and its human results, see John G. Mencke, "Mulattoes and Race Mixture: American Attitudes and Images from Reconstruction to World War I" (Ph.D. diss.: University of North Carolina, 1978); Leonard R. Lempel, "The Mulatto in United States Race Relations: Changing Status and Attitudes, 1800–1940" (Ph.D. diss.: Syracuse University, 1979); and Joel Williamson, New People: Miscegenation and Mulattoes in the United States (1980).

6. On the phenomenon of passing, see Williamson, New People, pp. 101–106; Paul R. Spickard, Mixed Blood: Intermarriage and Ethnic Identity in Twentieth-Century America (1989), pp. 335–336; John H. Burma, "The Measurement of Negro Passing,'" American Journal of Sociology 52 (July 1946): 18-22; James E. Conyers and T. H. Kennedy, "Negro Passing: To Pass or Not To Pass," Phylon 24 (Fall 1963): 215–223. On double consciousness and marginality, see W.E.B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk (1903, reprint 1990), p. 13, and Everett V. Stonequist, The Marginal Man: A Study in Personality and Culture Conflict (1937), esp. chap. 2.

7. The literature on this subject is large and still growing. See especially Werner Sollors, Beyond Ethnicity: Consent and Descent in American Culture (1986); Barbara J. Fields, "Ideology and Race in American History," Region, Race, and Reconstruction: Essays in Honor of C. Vann Woodward, ed. by J. Morton Kousser and James M. McPherson (1982), pp. 143–177; Michael Omi and Howard Winant, Racial Formation in the United States: From the 1960s to the 1980s (1986); and Thomas C. Holt, "Marking: Race, Race-Making, and the Writing of History," American Historical Review 100 (February 1995): 1–20.

8. Overviews of this remarkable family may be found in three books by Albert S. Foley: Bishop Healy: Beloved Outcaste (1954); God's Men of Color: The Colored Catholic Priests of the United States, 18541954 (1955); and Dream of an Outcaste: Patrick F. Healy (1976). For a briefer but more recent treatment, see Cyprian Davis, The History of Black Catholics in the United States (1990), pp. 146–152.

9. James A. Healy diary, Aug. 14, 1849, James A. Healy Papers, Archives, College of the Holy Cross, Worcester, MA. Patrick Healy's passports, Oct. 30, 1858, and Dec. 19, 1885, Registers and Indexes for Passport Applications, 18101906 (National Archives Microfilm Publication M1371, rolls 3 and 5), General Records of the Department of State, RG 59, NARA. There is also a copy of the 1885 passport in the Patrick F. Healy Papers, Archives, Georgetown University, Washington, DC.

10. Patrick Healy to Fenwick, Nov. 23, 1853, Maryland Jesuit Province Archives, box 74, folder 1, Archives, Georgetown University.

11. Patrick Healy to Fenwick, Dec. 11, 1854, and James Healy to Fenwick, Dec. 22, 1854, Maryland Jesuit Province Archives, box 74, folder 15, Archives, Georgetown University; Michael Healy to Cornell, Jan. 18, 1865, Revenue Cutter Service Application Files, box 12, RG 26, NARA.

12. Healy to Cornell, Jan. 18, 1865, Revenue Cutter Service Application Files, box 12, RG 26, NARA. Healy's file contains several letters of endorsement from captains and others who could attest to his seamanship. For the work of the service in these years, see Stephen H. Evans, The United States Coast Guard, 17901915, with a Postscript, 19151950 (1949).

13. See the several letters of recommendation in the Revenue Cutter Service Application Files, box 12, RG 26, NARA: Fitzpatrick to Fessenden, Oct. 15, 1864; Andrew to Harrington, Nov. 19, 1864; and Bacon to Fessenden, Dec. 20, 1864.

14. On the opportunities available to blacks in seafaring, see Martha S. Putney, Black Sailors: Afro-American Merchant Seamen and Whalemen Prior to the Civil War (1987); W. Jeffrey Bolster, " 'To Feel Like a Man': Black Seamen in the Northern States," Journal of American History 76 (March 1990): 1173–1199; and David L. Valuska, The African American in the Union Navy, 18611865 (1993).

15. The marriage of Michael Healy and Mary Jane Roach, which was presided over by the groom's brother James, is noted in Bishop's Journal, Jan. 31, 1865, Archives, Archdiocese of Boston, Boston, MA.

16. Register of Revenue Cutter Service Officers, 1790–1914, Vol. 1, p. 125, RG 26, NARA. For descriptions of the early American presence in Alaska, see Ernest Gruening, The State of Alaska (rev. 1968); William R. Hunt, Arctic Passage: The Turbulent History of the Land and People of the Bering Sea, 16791975 (1975); Elmo P. Hohman, The American Whaleman: A Study of Life and Labor in the Whaling Industry (1928); and Evans, Coast Guard, pp. 105–139.

17. Evans, Coast Guard, pp. 129–130.

18. On the reindeer scheme, see ibid., pp. 131–133. See also Gruening, State of Alaska, pp. 94-96, and Hunt, Arctic Passage, pp. 178–181. Sheldon Jackson himself wrote an account of these efforts: "The Arctic Cruise of the United States Revenue Cutter Bear,'" National Geographic Magazine 7 (January 1896): 27–31. A reasonably accurate fictional portrayal of Healy and Jackson is presented in part seven of James A. Michener's Alaska (1988).

19. New York Sun, Jan. 28, 1894; "Testimonial to Captain M. A. Healy," Dec. 2, 1889, Healy Collection, box 3, Huntington Library, San Marino, CA; Mary Jane Healy Diary (HM 47579), Sept. 22, 1890, Healy Collection, Huntington Library.

20. "Testimony Taken at the Investigation into the Conduct of Captain M. A. Healy," March 3–22, 1890, in "Charges Against RCS Officers: Capt. M. A. Healy, box 11, RG 26, NARA; undated clipping, San Francisco News Letter; Mary Jane Healy Alaska Scrapbook (HM 47616), Healy Collection, box 2, Huntington Library.

21. Records of Healy's second trial are in "Charges Against RCS Officers: Capt. M. A. Healy," box 11, RG 26, NARA; see especially "Address of the Official Prosecutor," [Jan. 1896], box 12. See also his service record: Register of Revenue Cutter Service Officers, 1790–1914, Vol. 1, pp. 125, 82, RG 26, NARA. The suicide attempt and the incidents surrounding it are recorded in the logbook of the USRCS McCulloch, July 7–13, 1900, RG 26, NARA; on this particularly troubling episode, see Gary C. Stein, "A Desperate and Dangerous Man: Captain Michael A. Healy's Arctic Cruise of 1900," Alaska Journal 15 (Spring 1985): 39–45. See also Gerald O. Williams, "Michael J. [sic] Healy and the Alaska Maritime Frontier, 1880–1902" (Ph.D. diss.: University of Oregon, 1987), which is marred by many factual errors and a generally unsympathetic tone toward Healy.

22. See, for example, Healy to Commissioner of Education, Dec. 17, 1894, Alaska File of the Revenue Cutter Service, 18671914 (National Archives Microfilm Publication M641, roll 3), RG 26, NARA; Healy to Shepard, July 4, 1893, ibid.; and Healy to Clark, Sept. 12, 1881, ibid. On his son's perceptions of himself and his family, see the diary of Fred Healy (HM #47577), July 25, 1883, Healy Collection, Huntington Library.

23. Healy to Shepard, Dec. 14, 1892, M641, roll 2, RG 26, NA.

24. In commenting on Radical Republican plans for Reconstruction, James expressed his skepticism about "the equalization . . . of the negro": Bishop's Journal, Dec. 4, 1865, Archives, Archdiocese of Boston. Sherwood spoke of "the negro" in a school exercise in which he argued that slavery itself was not inherently immoral, though the slave trade was; see his "The Church and Negro Slavery," A. Sherwood Healy Papers, Archives, College of the Holy Cross. Patrick made similarly detached observations about "the negroes" he encountered while crossing the Isthmus of Panama; see his diary, Dec. 9 and 16, 1879, Patrick F. Healy Papers, Archives, Georgetown University.


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