Healy to be honored by state museum

Posted: Thursday, February 03, 2000

Renowned Alaska law enforcement officer and cutter captain Mike Healy started his career by running away. In a sense, he never stopped.

Healy was born a slave on a Georgia plantation in 1839. At age 15, he ran away to sea. By the 1890s, as captain of the U.S. government cutter Bear, he represented justice on the frontier waters of Alaska and earned the name, ``The ruler of the Arctic sea.''

The U.S. Coast Guard recently paid tribute to Healy by naming a new cutter after the Alaska captain. Healy was an officer in the U.S. Revenue Cutter Service, the forerunner to the Coast Guard.

The Alaska State Museum will honor Healy with a special presentation from 5:30 to about 8 p.m. tonight at the museum. Admission is free.

A one-hour documentary video called ``The Odyssey of Captain Healy'' will be shown at 5:30 p.m. After a break for refreshments, Coast Guard Capt. Anthony Regalbuto, chief-of-staff of the 17th Coast Guard District, will speak briefly. George T. Harper, president and founder of the Blacks in Alaska History Project, will then give a slide show and presentation.

Healy was highly respected in his time for his seafaring skills and he's honored today as an African American hero. Although he stopped running from slavery, he was forced to keep hiding his heritage. In the late 1800s - the Jim Crow era of American apartheid and legal segregation - Healy passed himself off as white throughout his career in order to serve as captain.

``That was a tradition in the U.S. for many years,'' Harper said. ``If you were of mixed parentage and were light enough to pass as white, you could have a career that would otherwise be denied. There were a lot of people doing that.''

Harper has been interested in black history in Alaska since he arrived in 1980 and has done extensive research. He first learned about Healy in the mid-1990s.

``Capt. Healy was sort of an unsung hero,'' he said. ``These young kids in New York City had petitioned the Coast Guard to name a cutter after Healy.''

Healy arrived in San Francisco after the Civil War, already a seasoned sailor and an officer in the Revenue Cutter Service. He worked along the Barbary Coast, as the San Francisco Bay region was known, into the 1870s.

His career took off with the purchase of Alaska, and he was assigned to the northern waters.

``Healy was a master at arctic navigation. He spent about 20 years in the Arctic. He saved hundreds and hundreds of lives in the arctic waters,'' said Nadine Simonelli of the state museum. ``The Coast Guard still studies his arctic maneuvers.''

Healy and the Rev. Sheldon Jackson were responsible for bringing reindeer to Alaska from Siberia to provide food for the Eskimos in the wake of the destruction of their traditional food sources, Simonelli said. Healy recognized that the Eskimos were being wiped out, directly and indirectly, by market hunters and whalers.

``He was the one who warned the government about the devastation of the sea mammals,'' Simonelli said.

Healy was the only law in a vast region, and his sensibilities for enforcing frontier justice sometimes put him at odds with younger officers and with his superiors. In 1896, he faced a court martial.

Historian Harper has collected photographs and information from the Healy family, the Coast Guard, the National Archives, newspapers and museums. His presentation at 7 p.m. is titled ``Captain Michael A. Healy: The Man, His Ships and the Healy.'' Harper will look at Healy's impact on Alaska history, his family and career and the ships he served on, including the Alaska cutter Bear. Harper will also discuss the naming and the recent launching of the Coast Guard Cutter Healy.

``The Odyssey of Captain Healy,'' is part of the museum's First Thursday program. Admission tonight is free.

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