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Georgetown University's First, and Only, Black President

Updated: Mar 30, 2021

Patrick Francis Healy (public domain image)

Yesterday, February 27th, marked the birthday of Patrick Francis Healy, the first, and thus far the only, Black President of Georgetown University. Although he passed for white, he was in fact the son of an Irish immigrant who owned slaves and married one of them. It took Georgetown University more than sixty years after Healy’s death to recognize his heritage.

Patrick Francis Healy was officially born a slave on a cotton plantation in Macon, Georgia, on February 27, 1834. His father, Michael Morris Healy, was an Irish immigrant who was awarded the land in a lottery. Michael established a cotton plantation on the land, and would go on to become a very wealthy owner of land and of people. He eventually acquired fifty slaves. One of those was Healy’s mother, Mary Eliza Smith, who was 1/8 black. Patrick's father fell in love with her and they entered into a civil union, though they couldn’t find a priest who would officiate. Due to Georgia’s anti-miscegentation laws, however, a civil union didn’t save Mary from her status as a slave. Their marriage would endure until the end of their lives, and would produce eight surviving children.

Healy’s father didn’t want Patrick or his siblings to suffer the fate of slavery forever, so he sent them north to be educated. Patrick went to the Jesuit College of the Holy Cross in Massachusetts, which was overseen by Georgetown University. His Bachelor’s degree was in fact conferred by Georgetown. He then applied to enter the order of Jesuits. However, because of his mixed race status, and the fact that his parents’ marriage was a civil union alone and not sanctioned by the church, he was considered to have been born out of wedlock thereby officially making him ineligible. He requested a special dispensation, which was never granted but the church decided to look past his origins and he became the first black Jesuit. Patrick went to Europe to continue his education, obtaining his doctorate in philosophy from the Catholic University of Luvain. He then came to the university from which he received his BA, Georgetown, to be a professor of Philosophy. In 1874, he became President of the University. While students heard and spread rumors of his mixed background, he never confronted them directly. Apparently, he was hurt that there were rumors at all. Had his ethnicity been more outwardly discussed, it’s unknown whether or not he would have been able to have the impact on the University that would become his legacy. Sadly, Patrick never invited his mother to come visit him, because should their colleagues see her the question of the Healys’ ethnic background would be answered irrevocably.

Healy Hall on Georgetown's campus

Patrick Francis Healy was recognized for bringing Georgetown into the modern era. He added more sciences to the curriculum, and established the School of Medicine and School of Law. Regarding the former, he raised the standards of the practices, laying the groundwork for it to become one of the top schools of medicine in the country. He oversaw the construction of what would become Healy Hall, a grand gothic structure that would contain new classrooms, an auditorium, study quarters, and laboratories. While the academic value of the project was clear, Healy had difficulty raising the funds for it. He even enlisted the help of local millionaire and alumnus William Wilson Corcoran to be in charge of a funding drive. While that helped, Healy still had to go on a fundraising campaign that took him across the country to San Francisco. He was never able to fully raise the funding for the Hall, but the building was still finished. The project put the University heavily in debt, forcing it to lease several properties around the region.

After suffering poor health most of his life, Healy passed away in 1910. He was not recognized as Georgetown’s first black President until the 1960s when the University finally started marketing him as such when the Civil Rights Movement made it politically expedient to do so. In fact, Georgetown did not even admit its first black student, Samuel Halsey Jr., until the late 40s/early 50s. In the Centennial celebration of his rise to the Presidency in 1973, the University finally publicly acknowledged Patrick Francis Healy's black heritage in the programming around the event.

Georgetown’s associations with black history are even darker, with the University selling 272 of its slaves in 1838 to help it get out of debt. It’s no surprise that it would be slow to acknowledge the black heritage of one of its most effective Presidents. Some have even questioned if Healy himself would want it recognized. However, the University has made major efforts to address its history with the Georgetown African American Historic Landmark Project, which is fully dedicated to researching and publicizing the extensive part that the black community played in Georgetown University, and in Georgetown itself.

The legacy of Patrick Francis Healy is just one of many stories that I will be covering in the newest Off the Mall Tour: “The History of Black Georgetown.” I am thrilled to announce that the first date of this tour will be Sunday, March 28th!! Black History doesn't end in February, after all. Like my other tours, the first time I offer the tour is at the introductory price of only $15. Stay tuned for more details, including when tickets become available. Follow me on my Facebook Page, on Instagram @offthemalltours, or sign up on my website to make sure you stay on top of all the latest.

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