The Coast Guard icebreaker Healy is back in its home port of Seattle after four months at sea. On September 5, 2015, it had become the first United States vessel ever to reach the North Pole unaccompanied. In fact, it was only the fourth American ship ever to make it all the way to 90 degrees north latitude. En route, the 16,000-ton monster with a crew of nearly ninety (together with teams of scientists) sometimes had to plow through more than four feet of ice – it was built to be able to make it through ten – a procedure done by running up onto the ice and allowing its own weight to open the path. With support from the National Science Foundation and working with Geotraces, an international study of the oceans, the ship collected ice, water, and air samples and analyzed them in onboard laboratories, measuring the effects of the warming climate. In completing its mission, the ship did honor to its namesake and predecessor in Arctic waters, Captain Michael Healy (1839-1904) of what was then called the Revenue Cutter Service. His picturesque public career would be remarkable in itself. But his personal story adds to its drama and significance, because he was the Coast Guard’s first African American captain.
His career and reputation were made in the waters off Alaska, but Mike Healy had been born in a dramatically different place, outside Macon, Georgia. His family was no less unusual: his father (also named Michael) an Irish immigrant who had acquired a sizable plantation, his mother (Eliza Clark) one of the father’s slaves. White planters in the antebellum South fathered children by their slaves all the time, but what was exceptional about this couple was that neither of them ever married anyone else. Georgia law barred blacks and whites from officially marrying; it also prohibited the older Michael from freeing his wife, either while he was alive or in his will. Even so, the two lived together as husband and wife for more than twenty years, producing ten children, nine of whom survived to adulthood. In Georgia as in other slave states, children took on the legal status of their mother, and so Eliza’s servitude applied to their offspring as well. Knowing this but unwilling to treat his children as slaves, their father sent them all north as they reached school age. He died in 1850, just three months after his wife, unable to fulfill his intention of reuniting the family in either New York or Boston.
Far from home and in spite of their problematic origins – if they ever returned to the South, they could be captured and sold as slaves – the brothers and sisters were an extraordinarily accomplished group, many of them finding prominence in the Catholic church. Their father, probably baptized as an infant but unchurched in America, had had a chance encounter with the Catholic bishop of Boston during an early trip north, and this helped settle his children’s fate. James, the oldest, became a priest in Boston and later served for a quarter century as the bishop of Portland, Maine. Hugh, next in line, had set himself up in the hardware business before being killed in a boating accident at age twenty. Patrick became a Jesuit priest and eventually served as the president of Georgetown University. Sherwood was also a priest in Boston, perhaps destined for appointment as a bishop like his brother but dying young. There were also three girls in the family. Martha, the oldest, entered a convent in Montreal but left and married, later living a quiet life of middle-class respectability in the Boston suburbs. Her two biological sisters also became religious sisters; Josephine was a nurse, and Eliza was a Catholic school principal in several towns on either side of the Canadian border. Only the baby of the family (Eugene) was a failure, drifting from job to job, frequently asking his brothers for money, and soon losing touch with them. So much accomplishment in one group of siblings seems improbable enough, but the odds against the Healys’ success were even higher. According to the informal “one-drop” rule, anyone with even a trace of African blood could be considered black, and therefore blocked from advancement. With the help of some white patrons, however, many of whom knew but did not reveal the family story, the Healys violated that rule, passing into the white community.
Young Michael Healy had a similar kind of success in the Revenue Cutter Service, then a division of the treasury department. Like the church, it was a little world of its own, one in which he could in effect hide in plain sight. He had run away from school to enlist as a cabin boy, and in 1865 he received a junior officer’s commission. His light complexion was essential to this appointment and to every advancement that followed. Blacks had served before the mast as common seamen for generations, but the Coast Guard and the Navy both barred them from officer ranks until well into the twentieth century. His appearance, weather-beaten from years at sea, and his experience allowed him to keep his racial “secret” secret. Once, a balky subordinate had insulted him as nothing but “a God-damned Irishman.” A harsher epithet would surely have been more hurtful if only the antagonist had known to use it; he did not.
Healy achieved the rank of captain in 1883, and three years later he assumed command of a ship called Bear. Berthed in San Francisco, it made annual trips to the Arctic under his command, conducting basic exploration of the coast and rivers, policing the diminishing whaling fleet, apprehending smugglers, saving shipwrecked sailors, and generally enforcing law and order. Healy also planned and executed a scheme to help the native population by importing reindeer, regularly shuttling back and forth to Siberia with animals aboard. The Revenue Service was the only effective government presence in Alaska, recently purchased by the United States, and as captain of the Bear, Healy became easily the most famous man in the territory. He was also the most feared, popularly known as “Hell-Roaring Mike.” He took that as a compliment. When he gave an order, he said on one occasion, “I do not phrase my words with an ‘if you please.’” His career ended sadly. While the modern notion of alcoholism was unknown at the time, he apparently suffered from that condition. On two occasions he was court-martialed for drunkenness and abusing his men. Acquitted the first time, he was convicted the second and, though not stripped of his rank, he spent much of the rest of his career “waiting orders.” At neither trial had the subject of his racial identity come up.
Starting in the 1980s, as his full story came to be known, he was celebrated as the Coast Guard’s first black captain, and the icebreaker (named for him in 1999) is a recognition of his service. That, of course, is not a distinction he could have claimed while alive, a measure of the distance between his times and our own.