Fr. Patrick Healy, S.J., was Georgetown’s first black president. But the students and school didn’t know it back in the day, explained James M. O’Toole, the author of Passing for White: Race, Religion and the Healy Family, 1820-1920.

O’Toole spoke to an audience of about 50 faculty and staff with few students in a lecture Wednesday in the ICC Auditorium as a part of Jesuit Heritage Week 2004.

O’Toole began his lecture with a brief slide slow of the four Healy brothers, including a portrait of Patrick Healy.

O’Toole asked rhetorically which brother looked most “black,” to illustrate that the Healy family was extremely light-skinned and therefore able to pass as white.

“[The] society they were in said that everybody was something,” O’Toole said.

In the Deep South where the family resided in Georgia, there was a “one drop” rule. The rule stipulated that if a person had one drop of African or black ancestry, he or she was considered black.

Though living in a strict society on race, the Healy family managed to get by as white. One reason for their light complexion was the fact that the father was an Irish immigrant.

He owned about 49 slaves, one of which mothered all his children. She could not technically be his wife because she was a slave, but the two stayed together until her death. The children’s biracial heritage helped them gain higher social standing than most slave children.

“They managed to escape discrimination,” O’Toole said, because they were perceived as white but also because of their position in church. The family “became white, first, by becoming Catholic.”

While chance also played a role in helping the family pass as white, the boys and some of the Healy girls were sent to Catholic school, which started them on their path into the ministry, including Fr. Healy’s path to the Society of Jesus.

Most of the children managed to be successful, mostly in the church. Patrick Healy would go on to become president of Georgetown University after first working with new Jesuits, then teaching and holding a position equivalent to that of a dean.

While at Georgetown, some of the Jesuits knew of Healy’s background, but there was no mention of it, O’Toole said.

He said he was only able to find one reference of racism in a letter Healy wrote to a mentor. In the letter Healy said that some students at Holy Cross, a Jesuit college in Worcester, Mass. where Healy was both a student and a professor, made some harsh remarks concerning a private matter. O’Toole believes Healy was referring to his race as the private matter.

Overall, though, passing as white was beneficial to the Healy family. O’Toole pointed out that many people feel the Healys’ betrayed themselves and their heritage because they not only passed for white, but did not affirm their African ancestry.

Several audience members raised similar questions and concerns.

But O’Toole said the times in which the family lived shaped who they were.

“We can’t apply to them and their circumstances 150 years ago, the standards we have,” he said.

Therefore, he said, it is important to understand the family’s situation. Their ability to pass for white and be successful is a credit to them, O’Toole said.

“The Healy’s built their own lives, defining themselves in their own [terms],” he said.

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