Born a slave in Haiti on a sugar plantation owned by Jean Berard on June 27, 1766, the few who marked Pierre Toussaint’s entry into this world could not have guessed the destiny that awaited him. Taught to read and write by his grandmother, Toussaint’s master early recognized his intelligence and opened his fine library to the boy. In 1787 his master emigrated to New York City and took Toussaint and Toussaint’s sister Rosalie with him.
Berard apprenticed Toussaint to a hairdresser, and Toussaint quickly proved himself a master at that trade. Berard went back to Haiti in 1791 after the Haitian revolution to check on his plantation that now lay in ruins. Berard died in Haiti. His young widow Marie was now left in New York with slender resources.
With incredible charity, Toussaint decided to care for the widow of the master who had been kind to him. He quickly became the most sought after hairdresser in New York, earning enough to buy his sister’s freedom and to pay the expenses of the household. He did not buy his own freedom for fear that Marie would not then allow him to support her. In 1807 on her death, Marie Berard freed Toussaint.
By this time Toussaint was not only a hairdresser to the rich but also a counselor to many of the rich, who referred to him, no doubt to his distress, as “our Saint Pierre”. He was noted for his extreme charity, giving away most of his earnings to the poor of the city. Each morning he would also attend the early mass at Saint Peter’s on Barclay Street.