Biography 26.3 (2003) 494-498
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Scholars looking for heroes in the history of nineteenth century American race relations don't usually turn to the Catholic Church. The common Catholic practice of tolerating slavery itself, if not directly the trading or trafficking in slaves, has excluded most prominent nineteenth century American Catholics from the pantheon of abolitionist heroes. Indeed, not only did many Catholics own slaves in the early years of American history, but Jesuit orders in the United States collectively owned slaves. James M. O'Toole's new book, Passing for White: Race, Religion, and the Healy Family, 1820-1920,doesn't argue that any new abolitionist medals need to be distributed, but it does offer a remarkable vision of how race and religion were uniquely intertwined in the nineteenth century. By exposing the history of the Healys, a family of mulatto slaves that rose to shockingly high positions in education, the coast guard, and—most significantly—the Catholic Church, O'Toole illustrates how class and religious affiliation can occasionally trump racial identity in the racially fractured world of the nineteenth century.
What is most remarkable about the success of the nine Healy siblings is that, for the most part, their racial origins were not exactly a secret. The President of Georgetown University, a celebrated Captain in the Coast Guard, a Bishop in Maine, a Rector of the Boston Cathedral, and a Convent's Mother Superior were all known to be of black origin—if not by all of their colleagues and parishioners, at least by their friends and their mentors. The children of the Healy Family (James, Hugh, Patrick, Sherwood, Eugene, Martha, Josephine, Eliza, and Michael) all managed to redefine themselves not necessarily as white, but as primarily Catholic Americans. With that, they both betrayed and surpassed fears and hopes that Black Americans at that time may have had about whether American identity could be self-created rather than imposed.
The clan's father was Michael Morris Healy, an Irish immigrant who arrived in rural Georgia in the 1820s. With financial acumen, good luck, productive soil, and the exploited labor of people he bought as slaves, Michael Healy Senior quickly rose to be one of the most wealthy and successful landowners in his region. He had nine children with Eliza Clark Healy, an African American whom he identified as his "woman." As an Irish Catholic it was not perhaps surprising that as he considered how to raise his children who were all legally slaves, he thought to send them North under the care and supervision of the Catholic Church. As O'Toole explains in one of the most insightful sections of his book, freeing a slave was virtually [End Page 494] impossible during the early half of the nineteenth century. Manumission was seen as disruptive to the fundamental codes of social order, and so, even if Healy had tried to free his slaves (including, one would hope, Eliza) in his will, the courts would almost certainly have voided his desires and sold the slaves off as part of his general estate. Healy thus smuggled his children North to a world in which their legal identity as slaves, if not their racial identity as mulattos, could be hidden.
It is here that this story becomes immensely complicated. Throughout most of their lives, the Healy siblings were as vulnerable as any other Blacks in the North to illegal kidnapping, or even more frightening, to being apprehended as criminals under the clauses of Fugitive Slave laws. Of course their wealth, connections, and increasing social and political prominence quickly made that possibility unimaginable, and it is the rapidity with which what should have been a very real possibility was made unimaginable that makes up the heart of O'Toole's study. The Healys' legal status as slaves was almost instantly eradicated. Their social status as mulattos was less completely erased —there...