Two daring slave escapes, two descendant families and a DNA mystery
"The Crafts and Healys fled slavery. Their descendants just met. Are they actually cousins?
Just before Christmas, Tom Riley, 80, and his daughters, Kate, 51, and Erin, 48, did what many families do around the holidays: They exchanged greetings with their cousins over Zoom. Gathered at Erin’s Albuquerque home, they saw the squares on the computer screen filled by Gail DeCosta, 75, in Charleston, S.C.; Vicki Davis Williams, 73, also in Charleston; and Williams’s sister Julia-Ellen Craft Davis, 74, who logged in from her daughter’s home in New Jersey.
For two hours, they tried to answer a question that historians have long debated: Are they, in fact, cousins?
Williams and Davis and their first cousin, Gail, are great-great-grandchildren of William and Ellen Craft, a couple who achieved world renown for their dramatic escape from slavery in Georgia in 1848. Ellen, who was light-complexioned, disguised herself as a Southern gentleman traveling north with William, “his” enslaved servant. The Crafts became active abolitionists in the North, ultimately settling in England to avoid recapture under the Fugitive Slave Act.
Martha Healy, Tom Riley’s great-grandmother, fled the same region of Georgia during the same era as the Crafts. Martha’s mother, Mary Eliza, was the common-law wife of her enslaver, Michael Healy, a major Jones County landowner. Georgia law prohibited Healy from freeing his wife and children, so Healy sent his children north, both to liberate them and to educate them.
The Healy children would become the first known African American Catholic bishop, university president, Mother Superior and captain of a U.S. government ship. The Healys, who could pass for White, did not acknowledge their African heritage.
“Our side of the family was seriously passing right through my grandmother’s generation,” said Riley on the Zoom call. Riley was brought up White and Irish Catholic outside of Boston. Williams, Davis and DeCosta have always identified as Black.
This Zoom call, arranged by The Washington Post, may mark the first time these families have met in about 150 years. It also coincided with the 175th anniversary of the Crafts’ escape from Georgia at Christmas, a time when some enslavers granted passes to allow enslaved workers to leave their estates for the holiday.
The call was not marked by the usual mirth that accompanies a family reunion. These cousins – or likely cousins — were strangers, warm and cordial, but mostly curious to find out whether the other family had passed down any stories that suggested the blood relationship established by historians.
“There aren’t any family stories on our side of it,” Riley said on the call.
Martha, Riley’s great-grandmother, was one of six Healy siblings who chose a life of devotion within the Catholic Church, before she left the convent to marry. While the family’s African American heritage had long been the stuff of rumor among clerics and the congregations to which the Healys ministered, it was Albert S. Foley, a Jesuit priest and historian, who publicized the family secret in “Beloved Outcaste,” his 1954 book about Martha’s brother, James Healy, bishop of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Portland, Maine, from 1875 to 1900 and the first Black priest in the United States.
“I remember Father Foley coming to the house,” said Riley, who was 8 when his grandmother reluctantly granted an interview to the meddlesome priest in her Waltham, Mass., home. Riley was left in the dark until an aunt told him at 16 about his mixed-race heritage.
Foley made no mention of the Crafts in his 1954 book, but in “Dream of an Outcaste,” his 1976 book on the bishop’s brother, Patrick — president from 1873 to 1882 of Georgetown University, whose flagship building bears his name — Foley asserted that Mary Eliza, the clerics’ mother, was a sister to the famed abolitionist Ellen Craft. The journalist and historian Dorothy Sterling repeated the claim in her 1979 book “Black Foremothers.”
“I went deep down the Sterling and Foley rabbit hole,” said Ilyon Woo, author of “Master Slave Husband Wife,” her 2023 bestseller on the Crafts. Woo had drafted an entire chapter on Mary Eliza but abandoned it when she could not verify Foley’s claim that she was Ellen’s sister.
“[Foley and Sterling] clearly did an incredible amount of really obsessive research, [but] they were horrible footnoters,” Woo said. Still, she sensed, “They never said anything that they didn’t feel like they could back up.” She went in search of their elusive sources.
At the Josephite Archives in D.C., which housed some of Foley’s papers, she learned that the relevant box of documents had been thrown out. In Harvard’s Houghton Library, she found a handwritten 1893 letter from S.T. Pickard, the editor of the Portland Transcript, to a historian chronicling Maine’s Underground Railroad. Pickard said he had met Ellen when she visited the home of Portland abolitionist Lydia Dennett, then wrote:
“The Roman Catholic Bishop of this Diocese, Bishop Healy, is her cousin. … I doubt if it would do to publish these facts, for Healy does not acknowledge them. But Ellen Crafts (sic) told me it was so — and she called on him and was recognized.”
Pickard repeated that claim in an 1895 letter, specifying that Ellen was Healy’s “first cousin.”
That would make Mary Eliza the aunt of Ellen and not her sister, as Foley and Sterling had declared.
What ultimately gave Woo the confidence to state in her book that Mary Eliza was Ellen’s aunt were the materials she discovered at the Craft family archive at the Avery Research Center at the College of Charleston, which suggested a family relationship.
“It just comes up again and again,” she said.
In 2011, Davis and Williams donated to Avery a photo album that Ellen Craft started in England. Captions reading “Bishop James A. Healy” and “Rev. Sherwood Healy,” indicate where photographs of the Healys once appeared among the cartes des visitesof Frederick Douglass, Harriet Martineau and other luminaries the Crafts knew.
Julia Ellen Craft DeCosta, the grandmother of Davis, Williams and DeCosta, had been the custodian of that album. She, along with Davis’s and Williams’s mother, visited Bishop Healy’s burial place in Portland around 1977, Davis told the Rileys.
“Why would they do that,” Riley wondered aloud, if they were not related?
A few weeks after the call, Williams shared a picture of her mother and grandmother at Healy’s grave site, featuring a towering stone Celtic cross.
William and Ellen Craft themselves may have cryptically referred to the Healys in their 1860 book, “Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom.” They devote 10 pages to a story of “a very humane and wealthy gentleman, that bought a woman, with whom he lived as his wife.” This Jones County couple “brought up a family of children, among whom were three nearly white, well educated, and beautiful girls.” That describes Martha and her siblings exactly. While the story departs from the Healy history in some key respects, William, whose voice the book adopts, announces at the end of this story that the enslaved woman he described was “my wife’s own dear aunt.”
“It seems pretty likely their story was an embroidered version of the Healy story,” said Woo, noting that sharing the full story would have blown the Healys’ cover, as they were passing for White. It could have also complicated the book’s anti-slavery narrative, since the Healy children, as beneficiaries of their father’s estate, profited from the labor and eventual sale of their father’s enslaved workers after his death.
“You know, a DNA test would help a whole lot with some of this,” Davis told the Rileys on Zoom.
“I’d love to do it,” Tom Riley said. “And just sort of see where we are connected.”
DNA testing may confirm the two families are related. But it’s unlikely to provide definitive answers about how Ellen and Mary Eliza were related and who the families’ common ancestor is.
“We have the gift of DNA [testing] but it can also be confounding,” said Mary Helen Thomspon, a volunteer genealogical researcher at the National Museum of African American History and Culture. DNA results, she said, can tell us only so much, if there is no other context, like a family tree. Even then, the accepted family history may mask the true story, given how often official records and family documents did not acknowledge children of White men and enslaved women. In the absence of trustworthy records, she said, “oral history counts for a great deal.”
Erin Riley wondered if their family connection might prove too remote. She asked the group on Zoom, “Would Ancestry do it? Is it powerful enough genetics?”
Davis responded that a test would still probably register shared DNA. She did an AncestryDNA test more than a decade ago, and it confirmed that she, Williams and DeCosta had third cousins in England, descendants of the Crafts’ son William Ivins Craft, who returned to England after the Crafts came back to the United States. Williams held up a picture for the Rileys of Davis, DeCosta and herself with their British cousins at a UK reunion.
“They are, for all appearances, White,” DeCosta told the Rileys, the result of generations of intermarriage with White Britons. When DeCosta and her first cousins visited the U.K. in 2022, a couple of their British cousins said they had not been aware of their ancestry until they were adults. “It had not been shared with them.”
A few weeks after Christmas, Tom Riley spat into a vial and sent his DNA off to a lab for analysis. In mid-February, during Black History Month, he will learn whether his Black heritage includes the Crafts; and Williams, Davis and DeCosta will learn whether science backs their received oral history that the trailblazing Healys were part of their family. Two families in the history books for achievements in their own right may soon write the next chapter together."