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Thanksgiving: An affirmation of family

Melvin B. Miller
Thanksgiving: An affirmation of family
“This is going to be a different kind of Thanksgiving.” (Photo: Dan Drew)

Thanksgiving is the nation’s family holiday. Relatives come from near and far to reminisce and enjoy a traditional turkey dinner with friends. Hollywood publicists wisely chose this period to promote the film “Loving.” Many Americans are just learning about the nation’s anti-miscegenation laws that divided families.

Until the U.S. Supreme Court ruled as recently as 1967, in the case of Loving v. Virginia, laws restricting interracial marriage were constitutional. And they existed in various forms in many states. Massachusetts had the so-called 1913 law that did not allow the marriage of non-residents if such marriage would be invalid in the state of their residence.

Conservatives believed that intimate interracial association was morally reprehensible and that children of such a marriage would be genetically damaged. Then along came the Healy family to establish that such views were absurd. Michael Healy was an Irish cotton farmer from Macon, Ga., and his wife Mary was black. As devout Catholics they were married by a priest but without the sanction of the state. They had 10 outstanding children.

James Augustine Healy (1830-1900) was the eldest. Because of racial discrimination in Georgia, Michael sent his children to prep school in New England, and James was the first to graduate from Holy Cross College in Worcester. He became a priest and was appointed bishop of Maine and New Hampshire in 1875. Healy was the first black bishop in the U.S.

James’ younger brother, Patrick F. Healy (1834-1910), also graduated from Holy Cross and became a priest. Patrick became the 29th president of Georgetown University, from 1874-1882. He is the first African American to earn a Ph.D. Some other Healy family members also had distinguished careers in the U.S. and Europe. The Healy progeny established that being offspring of a multi-racial marriage does not inhibit intellectual development.

As often is the case, the Healy family’s affluence mitigated the inconvenience of the laws to preserve white supremacy and racial discrimination. While open and notorious interracial cohabitation was unlawful, it is hard to imagine a Georgia sheriff filing a complaint against one of the biggest farmers in the county. But Richard Loving was a working stiff. For him to circumvent local laws by getting married in another jurisdiction was an act of defiance. The U.S. Supreme Court intervened less than 50 years ago.

Thanksgiving is a good time to consider the obstacles Americans have overcome to preserve the sanctity of family.