By C. T. Smith
Patrick Francis Healy is the first African-American to earn a PhD. Healy earned his doctorate degree from Louvain University in Belgium in 1865.
One of nine children of his enslaved father and mother, he was reared in Jones and Macon, Georgia. Upon the death of the family patriarch, he bequeathed his children and wife freedom. With explicit instructions and funding, the family was able to escape slavery, and in doing so, education became a priority.
Healy and his brothers all attended Holy Cross in Massachusetts. It is said that the institution was aware of their racial heritage and it was not problematized. Each brother ascended the ranks in the American Catholic church and became the first African Americans ordained as catholic priests.
By committing to formal education, essentially Patrick committed to being a “trickster.” He accomplished this through traveling, speaking many languages, mediating between people and their God via the Catholic Church. What made Healy stand out was that he not only returned to academia, but he essentially integrated the early ivory tower by passing as white. While a student in Frederick, Maryland, maybe considered him to be of European descent, although this alleged passing was inconsistent as he encountered universities and schools that did not question his parentage.
In 1868, Patrick became the first African American faculty member at Georgetown University as a professor of philosophy. Healy rose through the ranks to become dean of students, then vice president, and eventually president of Georgetown University in 1874. He was the 29th president of the institution. Healy was the harbinger of many innovations at the university and was widely popular. Eventually, illness demanded he step down as president. Nevertheless, he remained an integral figure in Washington politics and in African American parishes in the local community.
As the son of his enslaver, Patrick Healy and his family knew the intricacies of whiteness and how to maneuver successfully. Along with his international experience, he studied in France, Germany and Rome. Like a trickster-figure, he mastered different languages, religions, and invited souls to be saved on behalf of a Christian god. Although tricksters are not “religious” in the way we know of religion today, the ability to converse with or appeal to god on behalf of the believers is in the nature of a trickster figure.
Source: Encyclopedia of African American History, 1619-1895: From the Colonial Period to the Age of Frederick Douglass