“God’s Reflection in Ebony”
What a wonderful man this is! Pierre Toussaint. Blessed Pierre Toussaint, to be exact. A slave in Haiti and in the United States.
In the mid-18th century, Haiti was a French colony, supplying France with great riches. It produced an abundant supply of coffee, indigo, sugar, tobacco, and fruit. French plantation owners could become unimaginably wealthy in a very short time, but this was accomplished by brutally controlling hundreds of thousands of African slaves who were treated with brutality and cruelty.
Across the ocean, both King and Church could write decrees to establish fair treatment for the slaves, but in Haiti it was not politically correct to extend justice to slaves. “French planters who treated slaves with even minimal Christian respect were considered by their peers to be threats to the securty of the island.”
And yet there were a few Catholic gentlemen who defied the wealthy society of Haitian landowners. Among these were Jean Berard, who owned Pierre Toussant and others, and, because of his faith, treated his slaves with respect. When rebellion, revolution, and religious frenzy of the non-Catholic religions threatened to erupt into violence, Berard moved his family and many servants to New York City in the very young United States of America.
Pierre Toussaint thus came to America, a slave to a wealthy family. His master had taught him the Faith, and his own character made him an attractive man of worth and honor. “Courteous, kind, and cheerful, Pierre attracted people. His quiet wit and gaiety lifted the spirits of those around him.”
He was taught the skill of hairdressing, and eventually served many clients in New York. As the Berard household endured increasing financial misfortune, it was Pierre’s income that held the household together. He gave his emotional support and encouragement and income freely to the family to whom he belonged.
“From his earliest years, PIerre was a devout man. He began each day by attending 6:00 Mass…followed by a stop in the city markets..and then a long day, on his feet, as the city’s popular hairdresser….As a black man he was not allowed to ride the city’s horsecars, but he harbored no resentment..16 hours each day, either working or walking….he exhibited joy on the streets to all….”
This is a small part of the picture we have of Pierre Toussaint, admired by his contemporaries. Freed at age 41 by the widowed and dying Mrs. Berard, with fortune and fate in his own hands, he married the young lady he loved:Juliette Noel. She was only fifteen, and also a devout Catholic. He bought her freedom, married her, and together they worked, earned money, raised a daughter, and invested in the welfare of the less fortunate in New York City. He freely and patiently explained the Catholic Faith to anyone who asked.
This is one of their projects, a large, modern orphanage directed by the Sisters of Charity that Mother Seton had established.
When the two were in their 80’s, Pierre was asked why he didn’t stop working now. His reply was recorded for us: “If I stop working, I will not have enough money to give to others.”
Fortunately for us, there are many existing records of the esteem in which he was held by all people. At 87 years old, not long before his death, he was asked by a friend if there was anything he needed. “No,” he repliled, with a serene smile, “Nothing on earth.”
General Philip Schuyler of Revolutionary war fame, wrote this about him: “I have known Christians who were not gentlemen, and gentlemen who were not Christians. One man I know who is both, and that man is black.” That’s from the historical record.
(Quotations in italics taken from: Ten Christians edited by Boniface Hanley, and described briefly at The Reading Shelf. (click))