In 1999, the Coast Guard commissioned a new cutter, the Healy, a 420 foot icebreaker, and named it in honor of Michael Healy, the famed U.S. Revenue Service captain who served in Alaskan waters in the late 19th century. The Coast Guard proudly claims the cutter is named for the first African American to command a revenue cutter, but like much of the history of race in America, Healy’s story is more complicated than that.

Michael Healy was born in 1839 in Georgia, the fifth of ten children born to an Irish immigrant planter and slaveholder, Michael Morris Healy, and his common law wife, Mary Eliza Smith, a mixed race slave owned by Healy. The pair raised their children and lived together for twenty one years, but being a mixed race couple, they were forbidden to marry. Slave statutes in Georgia also meant their mixed race children were considered African American, and having been born to a slave mother, were legally slaves themselves. As such, they could not be formally educated or even legally freed without a rarely granted act of the Georgia legislature.

All the children were lively and intelligent however, and to gain them access to a life beyond Georgia and slavery, the senior Healy sent them north to be educated in Catholic colleges in New England. They all, including Michael Healy the eventual sea captain, successfully passed as white as soon as they left the south, and racial attitudes being what they were then, even in the north, they never publicly acknowledged their African American heritage.

At age six, Michael was sent with several of his older brothers to Holy Cross College in Massachusetts. Classroom studies did not agree with him however, and after a less than successful scholastic career he was sent at age 15 to a Catholic seminary in France. He skipped to England a year later and signed on a merchant ship as a cabin boy, sailing several years before the mast as a seaman and eventually a junior officer.

In 1864, at the height of the Civil War, Healy returned to America, married an Irish American girl named Mary Jane Roach, and with the advocacy of several prominent friends of his brothers, was granted a commission as a 3rd Lieutenant in the U.S. Revenue Cutter Service by Abraham Lincoln.

With the U.S. purchase of Alaska in 1867, the Revenue Cutter Service became the hand of the American government in the new territory. Healy arrived in Sitka in November 1868 aboard the Revenue Cutter Reliance and became Executive Officer aboard the Rush in 1875. He assumed command of the ship in 1881, and spent the next three decades commanding the cutters Rush, Thomas Corwin, and eventually, in 1886, the Bear, the flagship of the Revenue Cutter Service.

The two hundred foot Bear had been built in Scotland specially for Arctic duty, with reinforced timbers and iron plating on the hull. For ten years Healy commanded the Bear and, often with his wife aboard,  delivered mail from Sitka to Barrow, enforced laws and seal hunting treaties, transported officials to far flung posts and murderers to trial, searched for lost vessels, and generally did whatever the government needed doing.

In all of this, Healy was considered competent in the extreme, and had the highest respect of Alaskans and the Revenue Cutter Service for that. His weakness for alcohol and his occasional harsh treatment of the men under him were less admired however, and gained him a nickname, “Hell Roaring Mike”. 

While the authority of a captain of a Revenue cutter in Alaska in those days was nearly unchallengeable, charges were brought against Healy after he had several sailors “triced up” for insolence. With their hands tied behind their backs, the sailors were hoisted by their wrists until their toes barely touched the deck. The pain was excruciating, and the men filed formal complaints. Healy’s record and reputation got the charges dismissed, and whaling captain friends managed to quash a Women’s Christian Temperance Union request for an investigation of Healy’s drunkenness. Further drunken incidents occurred however, including a stumble off a dock in the presence of fellow Revenue Cutter Service officers, and a drunken incident in 1900, where, after his officers restrained him, he attempted suicide in his cabin with the glass from his watch. He was reinstated briefly as a captain but retired in 1903 and died of a heart attack in the summer of 1904. He was 64. 

Healy remains a huge presence in the story of 19th century Alaska, and the naming of a 490 foot icebreaker after him is an unquestionable and well-deserved honor. But while Healy was unquestionably talented, he was not, at the time, recognized to be of African American heritage.  He passed his entire adult life as a white Irish American, and never, as far as the record goes, publicly acknowledged the African blood of his mother. In 19th century America this was a rational and sensible course for light skinned mixed race Americans- Healy would certainly never have received an officer’s commission in 1865, even from Abraham Lincoln, or been captain of a U.S. Revenue Service cutter, if he had been understood to be a black man. The first recognized black captain of a U.S. government ship would not step aboard until well into the last half of the 20th century.

That the U.S. Coast Guard now recognizes Healy as the first black ship’s captain in the Revenue Cutter Service, even though it would never itself have commissioned a black officer in Healy’s time, raises interesting, and probably unanswerable, questions about the history of race and the maritime services in this country.

For further reading about Michael Healy, see Racial Identity and the Case of Captain Michael Healy, USRCSBy James M. O'Toole. Prologue Magazine, Fall 1997, National Archives online at www.archives.gov

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