Wednesday, November 16, 2011

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

Slavery in America

The following is a continuation of the 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. Part I is HERE, Part II is HERE.

Upon arrival in New York, Berard  apprenticed Pierre to a Mr. Merchant to learn the hairdresser’s craft.  This decision was of signal importance and would provide Pierre with a livelihood that would make possible his numerous charities.  Merchant’s name appears nowhere in City records but the period of apprenticeship could well have lasted three years, until about 1800.  In the meantime, perhaps 1798, Berard returned to Saint-Domingue to reclaim the plantation.  Toussaint Louverture had invited former plantation owners to return so that the agricultural economy could be reconstituted and attain to production rates at pre-revolutionary levels.  The now emancipated slaves would be required to work as free peasant-farmers and Berard took the chance to return to l’Artibonite.  A letter, however, soon arrived at Reade St., from Saint-Domingue indicating his death from pleurisy.  Marie Berard’s two sisters, Marie Ann Dessource and Adelaide Bossard had also returned to Saint Domingue  but died there in circumstances undetermined. 

  Marie was now alone in New York, the last surviving white from the original entourage that had arrived at New York Harbor in 1797. At this point, while still a slave, Pierre began to take chief responsibility for the welfare of his mistress and the other slaves.  He paid off the debt to Merchant for his apprenticeship and continued to see to it that Marie Berard’s needs were met.  Although she eventually remarried in 1802  to Gabriel Nicolas, an emigre planter from Saint-Domingue, the new husband’s odd jobs as a musical performer were not sufficient to maintain the household and Toussaint remained the principal wage-earner.  

For Toussaint, the hairdresser’s trade consisted of two sorts of clients.  On the one hand he began to develop a list of subscription customers whom he would visit in their homes, often on a weekly basis or even twice or three times a week.  He also maintained two salons; on Chapel St. (now West Broadway) and the other on Canal St.  In the case of subscription clients, Toussaint was advantaged by working in the French colony in New York. He spoke English poorly; it was always his second language.  But French constituted his native tongue and it gave him an important entry into the community of French émigrés now living in  New York. He dressed the hair of many of the important personalities living in the City.  Although he left no list of customers, we know from letters and odd notes that he was a familiar presence at the homes of the Bancel’s, Binsse’s, LaRue’s and LaFarge’s.  Jesuit priest, John LaFarge, S.J., founder of the Catholic Interracial Council in New York would recall how Toussaint did his grandmother’s hair.  Moreover, his client contacts among New York patricians: Schuylers, Hamilton’s, Steven’s and Cruger’s  made him a familiar figure within New York’s Knickerbocker elite.  These two  communities gave Toussaint the income with which he would turn to philanthropic and charitable endeavors.  His letters reveal a steady request from various sources for funds.  Seminarians and newly ordained priests ask for money; widows complain about their malhereux and the need for a pittance to see them through.  George I. Paddington, a remarkable figure asks Toussaint for a bourse or stipend.  Ordained in Haiti by Bishop John England of Charleston, S.C. in 1836, Father Paddington floats without a parish and appeals to his friend Toussaint. Paddington may well be the first black man to be ordained by a U.S. Bishop, and our knowledge of him comes solely from his correspondence with Pierre Toussaint.

The correspondence became an early archival gift to the New York  Public Library in 1903 from Georgina Schuyler, daughter of George Lee Schuyler and Elizabeth Hamilton Schuyler.  It constitutes 5 boxes of letters, pew receipts, invitations to events at St. Peter’s and St. Vincent de Paul and other personal papers, including his manumission in 1807 and his will. After living in New York for ten years and earning the cash to support Marie Berard, Toussaint was freed in Marie’s final days. Of his own freedom, he seemed unconcerned.  “My freedom belongs to my mistress,” he would say. Yet his earnings allowed him to pay in part or in full for the manumission of others.  To defer one’s own manumission in order to assist other’s in gaining their freedom strikes us today as abjectly servile. Yet Toussaint saw it differently.  In his own mind, he felt the need to put the good of others ahead of his own needs and desires. Writing many years letter, Amelia Briggs tells “Mon Toussaint” that it is rare indeed “to be a man who asks for nothing for himself.” 

With his steady work and growing income, Toussaint becomes a lead donor to capital projects at St. Peter’s Church, Old St. Patrick’s Cathedral and St. Vincent de Paul Church.  In the case of the latter church, Pierre makes a major cash donation to create a French parish on Canal St. French Catholics who knew Pierre in New York and had returned themselves to France write constantly to inquire as to whether he has heard any good sermons in French.  One of these, Jean Sorbieu, a best man at Pierre’s wedding whose wife has become a lady in waiting since the Bourbon restoration and returned to Rouen, writes pointedly to Pierre about the sauvage Irlandais. We see in such letters the friction between French and Irish played out in the early years of St. Peter’s Church.  Toussaint’s style was acute but as far as we know non-controversial.  His friends were less demure. How did Toussaint view the tension at old St. Peter’s between the minority of French parishioners and the more numerous Irish? Regrettably we cannot answer that easily. We know that he was strongly pro-French in his circle of friends.  Of course this francophilia had sources of support in New York. Democratic-Republicans would swing the 1800 presidential election to Jefferson, and they represented the pro-French faction as against Federalists who were more supportive of Great Britain.

Yet money is not Toussaint’s only means of showing charity. We have a short note in the Collection urging Toussaint to get fire wood to a widow on Wooster St. Then there are the letters from an L. Emmerling, a prisoner in Bellevue. Prison ministry is a cliché term nowadays but the reality of visiting those incarcerated has a long Christian tradition and was obviously practiced by Toussaint. A woman in Paris thanks Toussaint for his counsel and good advice. “You know my character,” she says, hinting at a certain instability or manic disposition. 

Pierre’s charitable activities are hardly undertaken in a vacuum, as his wife Juliette is also deeply involved.  Her cousin, Fanny Montpensier is a black Catholic in Baltimore very involved with the Oblate Sisters of Providence, the first black order of nuns in the U.S. Fanny writes continuously of the progress of the Sisters and the need to support the Sulpician priests who help the order.  Food stuffs are requested, that should be forwarded to Rev. Deluol at St. Mary’s in Baltimore.  In repayment for the expense, the Sisters of Charity on Prince St. will recompense Toussaint.  Fanny notes in one letter that she would herself enter the Oblate order but she lacks sufficient financial resources to afford the dowry. She represents a forgotten group of free blacks, not rich, yet striving to do an immense charitable work for the establishment of a religious order of women of color. Toussaint, with much deeper pockets than Fanny, proves that he is not limited to helping his near neighbor, but considers it his responsibility to help others at a greater distance.

In 1815, Toussaint is summoned to the City Hotel, New York’s finest inn of the time. A French woman has arrived and is in need of a hairdresser. Madame de Brochet informs Toussaint that although New York is not lacking in amenities, it cannot take the place of Paris and the dear friends she has left behind.  One in particular, Aurore Berard, she longs to see again. Toussaint is struck by possibilities.  Could this be the same Aurore, the youngest daughter of the Berard family, his godmother?  Indeed, it is.  Thus begins a chapter of correspondence between Pierre and Aurore which will last until her death in 1835.  A constant theme in their letters is whether Pierre will relocate to Paris.  At length the decision is to remain in New York.  Aurore meets Pierre’s friends, Jean Sorbieu and Kitty Cruger in Paris and each one seems to urge the wiser counsel that Pierre stay put.  Even if he has the money to support an Atlantic crossing, Paris would hardly replicate the business resources that he has built up in New York.  While the Frenchman in Pierre and the good godson wants only to assist Aurore, a single woman living alone in Rue de Tournon, the more circumspect decision is to remain in New York.  
 (To be continued.)

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

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