Passing for White: Race, Religion, and the Healy Family, 1820–1920

Passing for White: Race, Religion, and the Healy Family, 1820–1920

University of Massachusetts Press
July 2002
296 pages
6 illustrations
Cloth ISBN: 978-1-55849-341-7
Paper ISBN: 978-1-55849-417-6

James M. O’Toole, Clough Professor of History
Boston College, Boston, Massachusets

  • An alternate selection of the Book-of-the-Month Club
  • Winner of the New England Historical Association Book Award

The remarkable saga of a mixed-race family in nineteenth-century America

Through the prism of one family’s experience, this book explores questions of racial identity, religious tolerance, and black-white “passing” in America. Spanning the century from 1820 to 1920, it tells the story of Michael Morris Healy, a white Irish immigrant planter in Georgia; his African American slave Eliza Clark Healy, who was also his wife; and their nine children. Legally slaves, these brothers and sisters were smuggled north before the Civil War to be educated.

In spite of the hardships imposed by American society on persons of mixed racial heritage, the Healy children achieved considerable success. Rejecting the convention that defined as black anyone with “one drop of Negro blood,” they were able to transform themselves into white Americans. Their unlikely ally in this transition was the Catholic church, as several of them became priests or nuns. One brother served as a bishop in Maine, another as rector of the Cathedral in Boston, and a third as president of Georgetown University. Of the two sisters who became nuns, one was appointed the superior of convents in the United States and Canada. Another brother served for twenty years as a captain in the U.S. Coast Guard, enforcing law and order in the waters off Alaska.

The Healy children’s transition from black to white should not have been possible according to the prevailing understandings of race, but they accomplished it with apparent ease. Relying on their abilities, and in most cases choosing celibacy, which precluded mixed-race offspring, they forged a place for themselves. They also benefited from the support of people in the church and elsewhere. Even those white Americans who knew the family’s background chose to overlook their African ancestry and thereby help them to “get away” with passing.

By exploring the lifelong struggles of the members of the Healy family to redefine themselves in a racially polarized society, this book makes a distinctive contribution to our understanding of the enduring dilemma of race in America.

View a 58 minute-long discussion from 2002-12-04 with the author here.

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