Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

Pierre Toussaint

Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

Pierre Toussaint

Article excerpt

Pierre Toussaint. By Arthur Jones. (New York: Doubleday. 2003. Pp. ix, 342. $24.95.)

Arthur Jones, editor-at-large of the National Catholic Reporter, mentions that, when Pierre Toussaint died in 1853, "he was hailed as the most respected black person in New York City." Born into slavery in Saint Domingue (present-day Haiti) in 1781, Toussaint was brought to New York in 1797 by his owner, Jean-Jacques Bérard, a refugee planter from the revolution in the French colony. Apprenticed as a hairdresser, Toussaint established a lucrative business among the grandes dames of New York society. After the death of Bérard, Toussaint supported Bérard's widow, who emancipated him in 1807 on the eve of her own death. In subsequent years Toussaint became a well-known figure because of his piety and charity to the poor.

One of his many white admirers was Mary Anna Sawyer Schuyler, a Protestant socialite, whose sister, Hannah Farnham Sawyer Lee, wrote a memoir of Toussaint in 1854 based on notes that her sister had made over the course of two decades. The memoir, together with several hundred letters deposited in the New York Public Library, remains the basic source for the life of Toussaint. Unfortunately, only five of the letters were written by Toussaint himself; the rest are from a wide variety of friends, both French and American. Jones has mined this material to present as complete a picture as we are ever likely to have of this extraordinary person. He is particularly good at filling in the background to Toussaint's life in eighteenth-century Saint Domingue and nineteenth-century New York City, and in identifying Toussaint's relatives and friends. Often enough, however, as Jones candidly admits, he can only speculate about Toussaint's motivation or reactions to important events in his life because of the lack of documentary evidence. …

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