Forging a path

Patrick Francis Healy was born in 1834 in Jones County, Ga., to Michael Healy, a white Irish slave owner and Mary Eliza, one of Michael Healy's slaves. A child's race was viewed as being inherited from the mother, and Healy was considered a slave. Consequently, Michael Healy legally owned Mary Eliza and her children. However, Mary Eliza and Michael Healy lived as a married couple during a time when it was illegal for blacks and whites to marry in Georgia.

Because Georgia law said slaves could not attend school, Healy's parents sent him to New York to receive an education. He attended a Quaker school in Flushing, N.Y., and then enrolled at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass. After he graduated, Healy entered the Jesuit order in 1850.

After taking his vows in 1852, Healy became a teacher and prefect at St. Joseph's College in Philadelphia. He went to teach at College of the Holy Cross in 1853, and in 1858 was assigned to study philosophy and theology at Georgetown College, Washington, D.C., the oldest Catholic college in the U.S. Healy went to study in Rome; however, after Rome's cold weather caused him health problems, he went to the Catholic University of Louvain in Belgium. There, he became a priest in 1864 and received a PhD in philosophy in 1865. He returned to Georgetown College in 1866 to teach philosophy.

Healy took his final vows as a Jesuit in 1867 and was named dean of studies of Georgetown College in 1868. He became vice president and in 1873 became acting president after the sudden death of the president, Rev. John Early. Healy was confirmed as president in 1874.

Healy is credited with transforming Georgetown College into a modern university. He modernized the curriculum, emphasizing science, expanding and upgrading the law and medical schools, and centralizing the university's libraries. He also founded the alumni association.

Healy retired in 1882 and died in 1910. He is buried in the Jesuit cemetery on Georgetown University's campus.

Historian James O'Toole says Healy's racial history was not revealed until the 1960s. Since then, he has been declared the first black Jesuit, one of the first black people to receive a PhD and first black president of a predominantly white university. Healy is considered the "second founder" of Georgetown University.

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