Preface: As we celebrate February and Black History Month I wanted to give everyone a peek into the tremendous history of African American’s in the Coast Guard. With several articles dedicated to those amazing men and women.
In 1839, near Macon, Georgia, Michael A. Healy was born to an Irish planter and a former slave. One of ten children, Michael was sent north with his siblings to be educated. While there, he spent many years serving aboard merchant vessels where he became an expert seaman and quickly climbed the ranks to officer.
In 1864 his career began in the Revenue Cutter Service (the modern day Coast Guard) when he applied and was appointed an officer to the U.S. Revenue Marine.
In 1865 he was commissioned as third Lieutenant by Abraham Lincoln. Not longer after, aboard the U.S. Revenue Cutter (USRC) Rush, he traveled to the area where he made his name and career, the newly purchased territory of Alaska. This is where his story really begins and where he would earn his nickname, “Hell-roaring Mike”.
Michael A. Healy would go on to become one of the most respected and influential members of the United States Revenue Cutter Service (USRCS). In 1880 Healy attained the rank of Captain and was given command of USRC Thomas Corwin, becoming the first African American to hold command of a United States Government vessel.
His mission aboard the Thomas Corwin ranged from liquor policing, seal and whale protection, supply delivery, deserter return, and among other responsibilities, federal law enforcement. His more than 20 years serving in the Region gained him immense respect from the native populations, who referred to his ship as “Healy’s Fire Canoe”.
His time in Alaska changed the way it was patrolled and managed and gave invaluable insight into its native populations, land and waters. Healy cared about the population he serviced, even helping to bring Reindeer from Siberia to provide the natives another source of food and clothing. His practices of weather collection and environmental protection were groundbreaking and paved the way for the Coast Guard of today. In 1999 the United States Coast Guard Cutter Healy was commissioned as a research Ice Breaker and is still patrolling the Alaskan waters today.
Healy was mandatorily retired at the age of 64 and died later that same year in San Francisco. Michael A. Healy became an inspiration for Jack London’s book “Sea Wolf”. He is also an inspiration for today’s Coast Guard men and women.
Irving H. King, The Coast Guard Expands, 1865–1915, Naval Institute Press, 1996, p. 39, 42 ISBN 1-55750-458-X