Patrick Healy, the priest who became the first African-American to earn a PhD in 1865

Nduta Waweru July 28, 2018

Many thought that he was white because of his light skin, but a look at his genealogy revealed that Patrick Francis Healy was indeed of mixed race ancestry.

Healy was born into slavery in 1834 to an Irish-American plantation owner Michael Healy and his African-American slave Mary Eliza Smith, who was of mixed ancestry as well.  Since he was born to an enslaved mother and there was a rule that children took the legal status of the mother, Healy was also considered a slave.

His parents, Michael and Mary Eliza were in a common marriage since 1829 even though such a union was outlawed.  Since the education of slaves was prohibited in southern states, Michael opted to send his children north, where they were educated and accessed a number of opportunities.

Photo: Wiki CC

Healy and his brothers were sent to the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts in 1844 and in 1850, Healy joined the Jesuit order, becoming the first African American to do so.

He later went to Europe in 1858 after his mixed-race background caused trouble in America. He studied in Belgium at the Catholic University of Leuven, where he became the first priest of African descent to earn a doctorate in 1865.

In 1866, he left for the United States, where he taught philosophy at the Georgetown University in Washington D.C.

He also became the first African American to be elected the president of the university in 1874. He implemented new aspects in the university that transformed its existence, causing him to be referred to as the ‘second founder’.

Not only did he modernise the curriculum but also extended the schools of law and medicine. He also oversaw the construction of the University’s flagship, currently named after him.

Photo: Wiki CC

He left the University in 1882 and travelled the world with his brother James Healy who was also a priest.

Although it was known that he was born of a black woman and that his father was a slaveholder, Healy opted to identify himself as Irish.

He died in 1910 and was buried in a Jesuit cemetery on the university’s grounds.


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