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Toussaint, Pierre


Former slave, hairdresser, entrepreneur, philanthropist; b. 1766, the French colony of Saint Domingue (in modern day Haiti); d. June 30, 1853, New York City.

Toussaint's mother and maternal grandmother were house slaves on a plantation in the Artibonite River Valley, near Saint Marc. The owner, Pierre Bérard, a devout Catholic treated his slaves in a humane manner. As a young child, Toussaint was baptized and not put into the fields, but worked as a house slave and was taught how to read and write. Allowed access to Bérard's library, Toussaint perfected his knowledge of French by reading the classical sermons of 17th century preachers, and in the process acquired a deep attachment to his Catholic faith.

After Pierre Bérard returned to France, his son Jean-Jacques took over the Artibonite plantation. In 1787, as the political situation in Saint Domingue worsened, Jean-Jacques brought his wife and five slaves, among them Toussaint, his younger sister Rosalie, his aunt Marie Bouquement and two other house slaves to New York City to ride out the crisis. In 1788, Jean-Jacques passed away suddenly of pleurisy on a visit to Saint Domingue to regain his properties. Toussaint came to the rescue of the now penniless Marie Elisabeth Bérard. Having been apprenticed to a local hairdresser by Jean-Jacques before he returned to Saint Domingue, Toussaint opened his own hairdressing business. A skillful hairdresser who was in great demand by the New York socialites, Toussaint was quickly able to earn enough as a hairdresser to support Marie Elisabeth, himself and the other slaves in the household. He was finally freed shortly before her death in 1807.

Toussaint achieved economic success as a renowned hairdresser in New York in the first half of the 19th century, rendering services to prominent socialites. He was able to purchase the freedom of his sister, Rosalie, and a fellow slave from Saint Domingue, Marie Rose Juliette, whom he married in 1811. When the married and subsequently abandoned Rosalie died, he and Juliette, who was childless, adopted their niece, Euphémie.

In addition to investing his wealth in stock and property, he also donated generously to various charities in the City. A devout Catholic, he attended Mass every morning and visited the Blessed Sacrament at the end of each day. Toussaint jumped over the barricades to nurse the sick and abandoned in times of pestilence. He and his wife nursed back to health a priest suffering from typhus. He provided shelter for homeless black youths, teaching them how to play the violin. He was generous with his funds both to whites and blacks alike. He was deeply in love with his wife, and among the few letters from his own hand are those sent to his wife when they were briefly separated. Among the most interesting of the letters found among his papers are several letters from George Paddington, a black man from Dublin, who was ordained a priest by Bishop England to serve as a priest in Haiti. The letters sent to Pierre Toussaint and preserved among his papers provide the best testimony of the honor and respect in which he was held.

Like all blacks in antebellum New York, Toussaint experienced racial discrimination despite his position as a man of substance. He and his wife were refused access to St. Patrick's Old Cathedral by an usher. Nevertheless, after his death almost immediately many persons of the time began to speak of his reputation for sanctity. Toussaint died in New York City on June 30, 1853. Cardinal John O'Connor introduced his cause for beatification in 1990. Pope John Paul II declared him Venerable in 1997.

Bibliography: The Pierre Toussaint papers, comprising about 1,200 items are kept in the New York Public Library. h.f.s. lee, Memoir of Pierre Toussaint: Born a Slave in St. Domingo (Boston 1854, reprinted 1992). h. binsse, "Pierre Toussaint: A Catholic Uncle Tom," Historical Records and Studies 12 (1918) 90101. l.r. ryan, "Pierre Toussaint: God's Image Carved in Ebony," Historical Records and Studies 25 (1935) 3958. a. sheehan and e.o. sheehan, Pierre Toussaint, A Citizen of Old New York (New York 1955). n. m. dorsey, Pierre Toussaint of New York: Slave and Freedman: A Study of Lay Spirituality in Times of Social and Religious Change (Rome 1986). t. j. shelley, "Black and Catholic in Nineteenth-Century New York: The Case of Pierre Toussaint," Records of the American Catholic Historical Society of Philadelphia 102 (Winter 1991) 118. c. davis, The History of Black Catholics in the United States (New York 1993). m. n. l. couve de murville, Slave from Haiti, A Saint for New York? : The Life of Pierre Toussaint (London 1995). e. tarry, Pierre Toussaint: Apostle of Old New York (Boston 1998).

[c. davis]

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