Venerable Immigrant

Book cover
Pierre Toussaintby Arthur Jones

Doubleday. 331p $24.95

Pierre Toussaint was born a slave in Haiti on the Bérard plantation, known as L’Artibonite. According to the most recent chronology, the year was 1781. The young Toussaint was spared the grueling toil of work on the fields. His labor was in the household, where he learned to read and write French. In this very Catholic household, Toussaint was baptized and reared in the Catholic faith.

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In 1797 Jean Bérard, the young plantation owner, left Haiti for New York City with his second wife, his two sisters-in-law and five slaves, among them Pierre Toussaint and Pierre’s sister, Rosalie. The black Toussaint would spend the rest of his life there. In the midst of the revolution on the island, Jean Bérard returned to Haiti in a vain attempt to save his plantation, but was caught up in the violence and died suddenly from pleurisy in 1801. Madame Bérard lost not only her husband; she also lost all the money that he had invested. From that time on, even though she married again, Madame Bérard would be supported by the young Pierre Toussaint.

As was the case for many urban slaves of the time, it had been arranged that Toussaint would learn a trade. Bérard had him apprenticed as a hairdresser—a lucrative profession that Toussaint learned quickly and in which he had enormous success. Madame Bérard Nicolas was never fully aware of how much she depended on him. Finally, in 1807, nearing death, she gave Toussaint his freedom. Toussaint then bought the freedom of his sister, Rosalie, three years later—the same year he bought the freedom of Juliette, whom he married.

By all accounts Pierre Toussaint was an extraordinary man. The New York Public Library Manuscript Division contains over 1,100 documents related to him. Arthur Jones, editor at large of The National Catholic Reporter, has drawn on these and other sources, as well as a biography written by Hannah Farnham Sawyer Lee (a member of the Schuyler family), Memoir of Pierre Toussaint, Born a Slave in St. Domingo (Boston, 1854), published a year after Toussaint’s death.

Arthur Jones’s Pierre Toussaint is a well-written and well-researched biography of a 19th-century ex-slave who managed to live a rich and faith-filled life of extraordinary service within the confines of a city and community racially divided and socially constricted. Jones has given us a good look at the historical context in which this authentically holy man managed to avoid the pitfalls and traps that lay in wait for every antebellum black. A successful businessman who owned his own home, he was at the same time a philanthropist, a social worker and a man of God. Jones’s book enters into the very mind and spirit of this independent and original man.

Toussaint moved back and forth within three worlds. The first was that of a black business man, devoted to his wife and the niece whom he adopted and nurtured, only to lose her to tuberculosis at the age of 14; a black man trusted by his black friends in America, in Haiti and abroad. The second world was that of the French émigrès, royalist in sympathy whether they resided in New York or in Paris. Finally, there was the white American world of upper-class New York families like the Schuylers, for whom he was the hairdresser, the sympathetic ear, the confidant and the very admired friend. In traversing these worlds, he ministered to the sick, sheltered the abandoned, aided the overlooked and cared for the forgotten, both black and white, young and old.

To his credit, Jones has made a brilliant effort to view this world through the lens of an Afro-Haitian American of the 19th century. Informed by his research into the social history of the period, Jones describes the dangers that every black male risked in New York City before the Civil War. White kidnappers abducted blacks and shipped them to the South into slavery, and black males in the city were often the victims of random violence from white hooligans who despised all people of color. Shortly after Toussaint’s death, Jones tells us, Toussaint was given the label of a “Catholic Uncle Tom.” His white friends and acquaintances did not know what he thought and said when he was with his friends and associates in the black world. Jones writes:

As a slave and free man, Toussaint survived and then flourished in a servant role in a racist society... he survived on society’s terms.... Yet the record suggests he operated to a greater extent on his own terms than his white friends may have recognized. This independence... is reflected in the letters from Toussaint’s black correspondents.

Arthur Jones makes good use of such correspondence, which provides insight into Toussaint’s heart and mind, noting also the love and understanding that existed between Toussaint and his wife, Juliette. It is no exaggeration to say that Toussaint remained head over heels in love with his wife. His correspondence includes a love poem he wrote to her on one occasion when she was in Baltimore visiting relatives. Jones also uses the collection of letters that his niece Euphémie wrote weekly to Toussaint, revealing much about the very happy and caring family life of her aunt and uncle.

Jones refers at length to letters that George Paddington, a black priest from Dublin, Ireland, wrote Toussaint. Paddington visited the Toussaint family on his way to Haiti before his ordination. These letters from Paddington to Toussaint are extremely important for historians of black Catholicism, because they are practically the sole source of information about Paddington, who was perhaps the first black man ordained a priest in the United States. It should be noted that Paddington referred to the United States as the “cursed land of slavery.” That he could write with such openness suggests that Toussaint was far from being an Uncle Tom. Jones remarks that after the ordination of Paddington, no black priest would be ordained until long after Toussaint’s death in 1853. But he forgets James Augustine Healy. The son of a white slaveholder and a slave mother in Logan County, Ga., Healy was born in 1830 and was ordained a priest in Paris in 1854. He did not identify himself with the African American community, although he himself was black, a fact that was known to many at the time. (The first black American to be ordained, whose racial identity was known by all, was Augustus Tolton, born in 1854 and ordained in Rome in 1886.)

This otherwise interesting, original and highly commendable biography suffers one serious flaw: the lack of footnote references. Works are cited; historians are quoted; names are provided. Still, one would like to know where a particular quotation can be found or where in the letters from or to Toussaint this particular sentiment is expressed or what source will yield corroborative information.

A few errors must likewise be noted. On page 259, a mutual benefit society of black Catholics in Baltimore is incorrectly named. It was the Society of the Holy Family, not the Society of Colored People. The president of the Society of the Holy Family was Jean Noel, a Haitian and a relative of Juliette Toussaint. In the same place, mention is made of Maria Becroft. Her name was Becraft; her father had been a slave of Charles Carroll, signer of the Declaration of Independence. Maria Becraft did open one of the first schools for blacks in the District of Columbia. She also became a nun with the Oblate Sisters of Providence in Baltimore, a community of black sisters—well known to Toussaint and his wife—where she died a few years later from tuberculosis. On page 279, Arthur Jones incorrectly names the second community of black sisters founded in New Orleans. They were known then as the Sisters of the Holy Family, and their founder was Henriette Delille, never spelled by her as De Lisle. It is too much to say that “she had to create her community surreptitiously.” It is perhaps more correct to acknowledge that the community she founded evolved into a religious congregation during the 1840’s.

Pierre Toussaint brings alive and makes accessible a remarkable human being, loved by many and admired by many more. Jones’s book shows clearly why Toussaint has been declared venerable and his cause for beatification introduced. In any period of history, Toussaint would be seen as a truly magnanimous man, who had the courage to follow his own call to holiness in a time of distress. He did it without rancor, without fear and with unfailing charity.

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