Patrick F. Healy was the first Black president of Georgetown University. Credit: Library of Congress

July 31, 1874: Patrick F. Healy was inaugurated as president of Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.

Though Healy was the first Black person to become president of a predominantly white university, Georgetown didn’t recognize him as such for nearly a century. According to James O’Toole, a leading scholar on the Healy family, only Georgetown’s Jesuit inner circle knew about Healy’s lineage. To the general public, he passed as white.

In 1834, he was born into slavery in Macon, Georgia, the son of a slave owner and an enslaved African-American woman named Mary Eliza Smith, who became his common-law wife.

Healy fought discrimination as an elementary school student, both for his African-American ancestry and his Irish Catholic roots. In 1850, he became the first African American to enter the Jesuit order and was sent to Europe to study eight years later, earning a doctorate at Catholic University of Leuven in Belgium. 

In a letter, he referred to rumors circulating among students about his race, “which wound my heart. You know to what I refer.” 

After the Civil War ended, he returned to the United States and taught philosophy at Georgetown before becoming the school’s president. He helped transform the small college into a major university, upgrading the law school and modernizing the sciences. 

His influence became so profound that many refer to him as the institution’s “second founder.” Georgetown, however, did not publicly acknowledge him as its first Black president until the 1960s and 1970s, according to a 2010 article in the university’s student-run magazine.

He was buried in the Jesuit cemetery on the university grounds, and Georgetown’s Alumni Association now has an award in his name.

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