Monday, November 14, 2011

Pierre Toussaint: Slave, Saint and Gentilhomme of Old New York, Part I

The following is a guest post by James Sullivan, whom I asked to share with us some of his research on Pierre Toussaint, about whom he is writing a book.

Philip Jeremiah Schuyler (1768 - 1835), son of Revolutionary War General Philip Schuyler may be best known today for a description of his wife’s hairdresser.  “I have known Christians who were not gentlemen, gentlemen who were not Christians – but one man I know who was both – and that man is black!”  Schuyler was hardly alone in remarking the Christian gentility of Pierre Toussaint. St. Peter’s Church on Barclay St. was standing room only July 2, 1853 at the funeral mass for New York’s most distinguished barber.  And although his closest friends had already passed to the grave,  their children and notables from New York society: politicians, merchants, charity sisters, (think Meryl Streep in “Doubt”) priests and a vast assembly of black and white who benefited from Toussaint’s extraordinary generosity were on hand to pay respects.  

Eliza Hamilton Schuyler, granddaughter of Alexander Hamilton recalled the service.  “I went to town on Saturday to attend Toussaint’s funeral. High Mass, incense, candles, rich robes, sad and solemn music were there. The Church gave all it could give to prince or noble. The priest, his friend, Mr. Quinn, gave a most interesting address.  He did not allude to his color, and scarcely to his station; it seemed as if his virtues as a man and a Christian had absorbed all other thoughts. A stranger would not have suspected that a black man of his humble calling lay in the midst of us.” 

Schuyler’s wife, Mary Ann Sawyer, from Newburyport was one of Toussaint’s two closest friends.  Besides her letters to “My St. Pierre” which are contained in the Pierre Toussaint Collection of the New York Public Library, she lives on at the New York Historical Society in a deathless portrait by Gilbert Stuart. Her pronounced bosom on a slim build arrests the viewer’s gaze and the smoky ringlets of hair cascading over the forehead displays the work of her coiffeur and confidante, Toussaint. Her husband’s portrait, also by Stuart hangs nearby in the Board Room.  Their son, William Schuyler had a special place in Toussaint’s heart.  His premature death at 21, devastated both the Schuyler family and Pierre who found in the young man the son that he never had. So poignant was the loss of William that Toussaint confided his feelings in his will.  “It was once my will, before it pleased Almighty God to remove him from this world to higher duties, that this part of my estate should be enjoyed by William Sawyer Schuyler, the eldest son of my friends Philip J. Schuyler and Mary Ann Schuyler, as upon him I had placed my warmest and deepest love. But My Heavenly Father has seen it good to call his pure spirit to His own immediate presence, and I now wish to be remembered by his family as one whose heart embraced them all.”

One cannot but be struck by Toussaint’s tone in the will.  There is no hint of paternalism, as in the subservient black man acknowledging his betters.  He writes instead as the friend that he certainly was.  And although some historians have criticized Toussaint’s deference, seeing it as a left-over from  plantation society, his familiarity leaves  him on equal footing with the Schuyler's.  He embraces them all with a full heart, just as he conveyed his deepest love to their dead son, William.  Toussaint defies easy categorizing.  The Christian humanism that was his guiding star placed him above class codes of the time.  Although it is true that he was not, to use Robert Norrell’s phrase applied to Frederick Douglas, “a protest lion,” he was also not a caricature black, someone who acted as if his dignity was conferred on him by white society.  While Henry Binsse did describe him, unfortunately, as a “Catholic Uncle Tom” (1918), historians now tell us that Harriett Beecher Stowe actually had Josiah Henson in mind for her famous character and most likely had no knowledge of Toussaint.  Added to this, the profound anti-Catholicism of the Beecher’s would make the very Catholic barber an unlikely figure for Harriett’s literary efforts. What Binsse saw in Toussaint was character or moral strength, virtues found in Stowe’s Uncle Tom.

When Toussaint died, June 30, 1853, Mary Ann’ sons, Robert and George Lee Schuyler were named executors of his estate. Robert would die in ignominy, a few years after Toussaint, a character in the mold of Bernie Madoff.  “America’s Railroad King,” Robert issued over $2 million of worthless railroad bonds, supported, probably unwittingly, by a loan from Cornelius Vanderbilt.  He absconded to France and died there in 1855.  George Lee Schuyler, a yachtsman lived into his dotage and is remembered for pioneering the America’s Cup and as a charter member the New York Yacht Club. When the two brothers inventoried Toussaint’s personal effects, they discovered a trove of letters – over 1100 – written to him from friends over a period from the early 1800’s to a year before his death.  Letters appear from Paris, Rouen, LeHavre, Dinard and other locations in France, as well as from Haiti, such places as Port-Au-Prince, St, Marc, and Cap Hatien.  In the U.S., Toussaint relatives and friends write from Baltimore, Botetourt Springs, Little Sodus and Charleston, to name only some of the transmission points. Many short notes come from New York City from friends like Madame Binsse or Elizabeth Hamilton Schuyler while many others come from strangers, black and white.  Indeed this bevy of correspondence proves Toussaint’s role as a bridge-person in the French diaspora taking place in the Atlantic community during the late 18th and early 19th century.    Unfortunately, we have yet to uncover any quantity of Toussaint’s own letters  – only a few exist.

So who was this man who arrived in New York Harbor in 1797, a sixteen year old slave, part of an entourage of 9 people fleeing the rising in Saint-Domingue (today’s Haiti)?  And how did it happen that he would become a one-man social service agency, considered by his pastor, William Quinn “the first among the Catholic laity in New York?”  Moreover, in this day and age when race receives heightened attention, emblemized by our first racially mixed President, why does this eminent black man from 19th century New York continue to elude us? In trying to answer these questions, we necessarily come up against the mystery that surrounds every human person. Yet, the matter is more perplexed, inasmuch as Toussaint sought to hide his good works. He was in fact a studious non-promoter of his cause. Eliza Hamilton Schuyler notes that Mr. Quinn in his eulogy brought out many marvelous deeds of Toussaint that were wholly unknown to her, a close friend.  Indeed, days after his death, the executors uncovered on a desk in his Franklin St. home, neat piles of cash with accompanying names and addresses of donors to one of his pet charities, the Roman Catholic Orphanage on Prince St.

Moreover, we also encounter Toussaint’s critics.  Commenting in the New York Times, Feb. 23, 1992, Albert Raboteau, Henry W. Putnam Professor of History at Princeton allowed, “certainly the guy was charitable, but he was also passive and servile.” Rev. Lawrence Lucas, pastor of Resurrection Church in Harlem noted Pierre’s “namby-pamby” qualities, finding him a “mere creature of his times.” For Raboteau, “his biography does not resonate with the mood of activism of black Catholics today.”
For this group, the “protest lion” is the litmus.  Yet, Catholic Worker editor and author Arthur Sheehan had already pointed out in the 1950’s that protest “was not his way.” Sheehan acknowledged that the question of Pierre and racism had to be reviewed, but ended admitting “his victories were won in a more subtle and perhaps more effective campaign…and so gained a power to influence over the minds of those who met him.” Perhaps it is time that we differentiate between the various ways a free black person could comport themselves in antebellum New York.  Frederick Douglas spoke so eloquently of the rights of man in England that white enthusiasts hearing his stump speeches collected sufficient monies to gain him his manumission.  In Pierre Toussaint’s case, his own monies, earned from the hairdresser’s craft allowed him to purchase the freedom of other blacks, even before his own freedom was granted by his mistress on her deathbed in 1807. Who is greater, we might ask…someone who uses his entrepreneurial skills to gain the funds sufficient to buy the freedom of others or the work of a black orator moving minds and opinion?  Certainly, both kinds of conduct are necessary in the economy of liberation; Toussaint just as much as a Douglas or a DuBois.
(To be continued.)

Copyright © James Sullivan, 2011. All rights reserved worldwide.


May said...

Yes, it takes all types. What a beautiful article! I am looking forward to the rest of the series.

Brantigny said...

I have copied both of these posts part 1 and 2 and posted them in the Chapel here at the prison. Thanks.

elena maria vidal said...

Thanks, M. Thanks, Richard. There is much more to come.

Erik Donald France said...

This is fascinating. I'm working on the Johnston family and am curious about the connection between Estelle Villagrande Costar Johnston and Toussaint, and what they corresponded about.