Pierre Toussaint: A Biography
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 daughters 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.
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Review of the hardcover edition (2003, Doubleday)
“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