Today Americans in the United States commemorate the birth of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.as an iconoclastic figure in the struggle for equality of African-Americans in the 20th century United States. Catholics of African-American heritage contributed to this movement in great numbers in the 18th and 19th centuries as well.
It is interesting to note that the first African-American Catholic priest and bishop in the United States was James Augustine Healey, born in April of 1830. The future Bishop Healey was born the first of ten children to an Irish immigrant plantation owner and his wife, a former African-American slave. Michael Morris Healy was born in 1795 and emigrated from Ireland to Macon county Georgia in 1818. He acquired a substantial plantation and held 49 slaves as laborers on the plantation. One of the slaves was Mary Eliza Smith. She and Michael Morris Healy were married in 1829. While the marriage of two individuals of different races was taboo in the 19th century, their common-law union resulted in 10 children; all but one survived to adulthood and developed colorful stories of their own.
James Augustine Healy was educated in primarily Quaker schools in Flushing, New York and then became the first African-American admitted to Holy Cross College in Worcester, Massachusetts. After college studies, he considered a vocation to the Jesuits’ novitiate in Maryland. However, Maryland was a slave state. After much consideration, James Augustus Healy entered a Suplican Seminary in Montreal. In 1852, he was sent to Saint Suplice Seminary in Paris, aspiring to finish doctoral studies and become a seminary professor.
James Augustine Healy was ordained a Catholic priest for the Archdiocese of Boston on June 10, 1854 in the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris. He became the first African-American Catholic priest on this date. (Augustus Tolton is incorrectly cited as the first African American Catholic Priest in the United States. This is partially due to the fact that James Augustus Healy was not at the time widely known as partially African-American. Augustus Tolton was ordained a priest at Saint Peters in Rome in 1886.)
Returning to Boston, Father Healy became the pastor of Saint James Church, one of the largest parishes in the Archdiocese. He actively defended the rights of Catholic parishioners in Boston as vital members of the local community and advocated for the Catholic Church as one of the primary social institutions in Massachusetts. He strongly advocated for the equal recognition of Catholic organizations in Massachusetts to those of non-Catholic and secular societies.
He was so influential and successful in this campaign that Pope Pius IX recognized his achievements and named him as the second Bishop of Portland, Maine. He was consecrated a Bishop on June 2, 1875 and therefore became the first African-American to be elevated to the episcopate in the United States.
For 25 years he served as Bishop of Portland, Maine. His administration successfully developed 60 new parishes, 68 missions, 18 convents and Catholic schools. Acutely sensitive of topics of racism, Bishop Healy worked diligently to alleviate racism against African-Americans in the 19th century. However, he preferred to spread the message of racial equality through the Catholic faith and not through politically active platforms such as the Congress for Colored Catholics and similar organizations. Bishop Healy died in 1900 as Bishop of Portland, Maine.
In remembering the legacy of Dr. King today, we should also recall the many other individuals that preceded the civil rights movement of the 20th century and recognize the struggle is indeed one that continues even to this very day. Individuals like Most Reverend James Augustus Healy are inspirations for all African-American Catholics in the struggle for racial, religious and social equality for which Dr. King is remembered today. As Catholics we should remember all men and women, of all races, who have helped bring the dream of racial equality to the state it currently exists in the United States. They were all pioneers and trailblazers in their own particular historical eras.