Pierre Toussaint’s Portrait at Columbia

One of the most frequently reproduced images from the University Archives is an early 1850s portrait of Pierre Toussaint taken by former University President and enthusiastic amateur photographer Nathaniel Fish Moore. This photograph, long held by the Moore family, arrived at the Archives in 1944. It was initially incorrectly credited and its subject misidentified, but was eventually used to identify Toussaint’s remains in 1990.

Pierre Toussaint, 1850s. Nathaniel Fish Moore photographs, University Archives.

After a visit to the first World’s Fair at the Crystal Palace in 1851, Nathaniel Fish Moore became an avid enthusiast and practitioner of an early, very fragile and light sensitive photographic process known as salt prints. Columbia started its collection of Moore’s photographic works with an 1854 photograph of the original College Hall at 40 Park Place. According to the label attached to the work, Moore gave the photograph to the College Organist, Dr. W.H. Walker, who then transferred it to the College Library in 1887. A set of Moore’s photographs came to the Columbiana Collection in 1924. According to the Columbia Alumni News, a Mrs. S.C. Jones of New York donated four prints: a view St. John’s Park from Hudson Street, the De Rham mansion on Fifth Avenue at Ninth Street, Clement Clarke Moore’s Chelsea House on West 23rd Street, and a self-portrait of the photographer. Mrs. Jones grew up across the street from the Clarke Moores and Nathaniel Fish Moore was a frequent dinner guest at her home. She recalled that the amateur photographer would wear cotton gloves to dinner “because his hands were stained with photographic chemicals.”

The last set of salt prints, including the Toussaint print, were donated to the Columbiana Collection in 1944 by William Hodges. He was the grandson of Sarah Ann Moore, who was the sister and frequent travel companion of the photographer, Nathaniel Fish Moore. The Moore family had for generations been very closely tied to Columbia, starting with the Rev. Dr. Benjamin Moore, a graduate of King’s College Class of 1768 who later served as president of both King’s College (1775-1776) and Columbia College (1801-1811). Hodges incorrectly believed that the photographs were the work of William Moore (another great-uncle and also the subject of a portrait) and, because there were some of former Columbia President Moore, he sent the photographs to the Library. Columbiana Curator Milton Halsey Thomas recognized the earlier salt prints as part of Nathaniel Fish Moore’s work and so the images were added to the collection.

While some of the salt prints came with useful descriptions, for others, there is either not much or just incorrect information. And that is the case with the Pierre Toussaint portrait. On the back of the print, a handwritten caption by an unknown writer states: “The Moore Family’s faithful old servant – a slave.” This is completely incorrect, but the text as it appears is recorded as the information that came with the photograph. Touissant was not a servant to the Moore family, and while he was an enslaved person for part of his life, by the time he posed for the photograph, he had been a free man for over 40 years.

Toussaint came to New York from Haiti (then Saint-Domingue) in 1787 with his enslavers, the Bérards. In the City, he was trained as a hairdresser by a Mr. Merchant (no first name survives) and became a popular stylist for the ladies of the time. After the death of Jean-Jacques Bérard and the loss of the sugar plantation in Haiti, it was Toussaint’s income on which the widow Marie Bérard depended for the rest of her life (almost 20 years). When Marie died in 1807, Pierre became a free man and he chose the last name Toussaint in honor of the Haitian Revolution hero Toussaint Louverture. Pierre Toussaint became known for his philanthropic works: he freed enslaved persons, helped found an orphanage, funded schools for Black children, and even helped victims of the yellow fever.

Nathaniel Fish Moore self-portrait, 1850s. Nathaniel Fish Moore photographs, University Archives.

What was the connection between Toussaint and the Moores? Toussaint was Sarah Ann Moore’s hairdresser. In the Pierre Toussaint papers at the New York Public Library, there are two letters from Sarah Ann Moore, the donor’s grandmother. In an undated one, she asks for a hairdressing appointment. In one from 1840, she tells Toussaint that she has brought him back a rosary from her (and Nathaniel’s) visit to the Holy Land. They were all also neighbors. Nathaniel and Sarah Ann lived for a time at 70 Franklin Street and Toussaint lived (and owned the house) at 144 Franklin. This is how Tousssaint, a Moore family friend by then in his 80s, came to pose for her brother Nathaniel’s portrait.

In 1990, the Nathaniel Fish Moore photograph was used to identify Toussaint’s remains. Columbiana Curator Hollee Haswell made the print available to the team of forensic anthropologists who matched the image against Toussaint’s exhumed skull. Toussaint’s remains, originally buried at the cemetery of Old St. Patrick’s Church on Prince Street, were then interred beneath the high altar of St. Patrick’s Cathedral as part of the process to have Toussaint achieve sainthood in the Catholic Church. In 1997, Pope John Paul II declared Pierre Toussaint, Venerable, and so he is on the path to become North America’s first Black saint.

For more information about Toussaint in the University Archives, please see the Historical Biographical Files, Box 309, folder 12. It includes some articles, newspaper clippings, and the full forensic report. The complete collection of Nathaniel Fish Moore’s fragile, salt-print photographs has been scanned for preservation.

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