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Passing for White:
Race, Religion, and The Healy Family, 1820-1920

by James M O'Toole

James O'Toole's novel 'Passing for White' is a fascinating, well written, and well-researched work about this distinguished Irish-American and African-American family.

The founder of this family was Michael Morris Healy, born in Ireland (Galway or Roscommon) in 1796. Sometime in the early 1800s he acquired land near present day Macon Georgia, and became a cotton plantation owner, and he acquired slaves to work the plantation, including one Eliza Clark.

Unlike other slave owners, Michael did not have a wife in the big house and a concubine in the slave quarters. Laws during the slavery era prohibited inter-racial marriages, but Michael and Eliza carried out their family life as husband and wife until their death in 1850 (Eliza's death preceded Michael's by about three months.) Their union produced nine children who survived to adulthood. (One died in infancy).

The Healy children were never treated as slaves, but under contemporary Georgia law, they were indeed slaves. Why? A person's slave-status was determined from the status of the mother. Knowing this, Michael Healy began to send children North for their schooling. James was first to move North, followed by brothers Sherwood, Patrick, Hugh (another brother), Michael, and sister Martha Ann. Later, after the death of the parents in 1870 the younger children Amanda Josephine, Eliza Dunamore, and Eugene moved North - with Hugh's able assistance.

All this was happening when the Fugitive Slave Act was the law of the land. Technically all the Healys were runaway slaves subject to apprehension and the law's subsequent Draconian consequences.

Hugh was the only one of the Healy siblings to ever return to Georgia. By returning in 1851, to retrieve three youngest siblings he placed himself at great personal risk. Under the Fugitive Slave Act, a Black person living north of the Maxon Dixon line was at great personal risk. But the risk of a Black person, technically a runaway, returning to Macon Georgia!

O'Toole goes on to chronicle the many achievements and to a lesser extent the disappointments of the Healy clan. The title, 'Passing for White' give us a hint of the Healys' lives in 19th century Catholic America. According to O'Toole the Healys did not deny or hide their black origin, many know of it. But the Healys managed to redefine themselves Irish-Catholic Americans.