Pierre Toussaint: A Biography
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This is the remarkable true story of Pierre Toussaint (c.1781-1853), a slave who gained his freedom and became a well-known high-society hairstylist in New York City. A devout Catholic, Toussaint worked tirelessly on behalf of the poor and oppressed and is now a candidate for sainthood. At the time of his death, he was hailed as New York’s leading black citizen.
Toussaint was born on the island of Haiti on a plantation owned by the Bérards, a prosperous French family, who raised him as a Catholic. When the Bérards fled to New York in 1797 during a slave uprising, they took Toussaint with them as a servant. New York held its own dangers: anti-Catholic sentiment was high and African-Americans were beaten on the streets. But Toussaint began to earn a substantial income as a hairdresser to upper-class women, including the wife of Alexander Hamilton, a profession he continued after gaining his freedom in 1807. Moving as he did in the higher echelons of society, Toussaint was reputed to know everything that went on in the city.
In the first biography written for a mainstream audience, Arthur Jones draws on letters from Toussaint’s friends and admirers, both black and white. They admired him equally for his charming, refined manners and for his exemplary charity work: caring for the poor, helping former slaves, and raising funds for New York’s first Catholic cathedral. In 1996, the Catholic Church declared him ‘Venerable’, the second step toward sainthood, because of his good deeds. Toussaint was supported in his charity work by his wife, Juliette Gaston, a slave whose freedom he had purchased.
Although Toussaint experienced poverty and prejudice, he found strength in his religious faith, his independence of mind, and his sense of personal dignity. In defying the strictures of a racist society, Toussaint became a symbol of hope for oppressed and maligned people of all backgrounds.
Review: “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.” – Cyprian Davis, America Magazine
Review: “Coping with war, racism and changing coiffures with equal aplomb, Toussaint was stylist and confidant to the city’s richest women (he numbered Alexander Hamilton’s wife and granddaughter among his clients), becoming both a fixture in white society and a pillar of the black and Catholic communities. Through this sociologically fascinating figure, Jones … explores the economy and society of pre-revolutionary Haiti and early Republican New York, the culture of Caribbean-French expatriates, and the racial and ethnic tensions within the American Catholic Church.” – Publishers Weekly
Review: “While this biography is interesting as a re-creation of the unlikely life of an exceptional man who was an outstandingly devoted and learned Catholic person, it is also a compelling book of history about the unusually turbulent sociopolitical context in which his life takes place. Both in the early part of the story set in Haiti and in the later sojourn over the 50 years when Pierre dwelt in early New York City, the author cites historical resources that vividly bring alive to the reader’s senses the two very different environments.” – Chloe, Amazon.com review
Review: “Toussant … came to exemplify the principles of the Catholic faith to such an extent that he has become a candidate for canonization. In this first biography for a mainstream audience, Jones … draws on correspondence and historical documentation to detail the life of an extraordinary man who overcame poverty, racism, and political upheaval to eventually help establish one of the first orphanages and to help finance the first cathedral in New York. … In America, he confronted virulent racial attitudes and anti-Catholic sentiment. Maintaining a humble demeanor with dignity, while in service as a hairdresser to New York’s elite, Toussant continued to support the Catholic Church, the poor, and former slaves, maintaining consciousness of issues of race and class. Jones offers a perspective on race and religion at a turbulent time in American history in this biography of a man once widely admired who had fallen into near obscurity.” – Vernon Ford, Booklist
eBook: 2020, Capparoe Books; hardcover: 2003, Doubleday, 342 pages, ISBN: 0385499949
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