Throughout the Federal period, free Black Americans were subject to discriminatory laws and oppressive social restrictions that prevented them from achieving equity with white Americans. Even so, they persisted in asserting their dignity. Free Black Americans came together all over the United States to form communities to support one another. They donated resources to build Black churches and schools and established businesses to serve their communities when white businesses would not. They were also the backbone of the national grassroots movement to abolish slavery in the U.S.
These portraits depict the three members of the Toussaint family, one of the most successful and generous free Black families in New York City during the Federal period. Husband Pierre Toussaint began his life enslaved on a plantation in Haiti and was brought to New York by his enslavers in 1787. He was trained as a hairdresser and, through hard work, became a huge success. Pierre voluntarily used his earnings to support his enslavers. He was granted his freedom when the last member of the family passed away in 1807.
Pierre’s hairdressing business continued to thrive. In 1811, he used his earnings to purchase the freedom of Juliette Noel, the woman he loved. The two married and adopted and freed Pierre’s niece, Euphemia. The Toussaint family opened their home to Black orphans, established a credit union and employment agency for Black workers, and funded the building of Old Saint Patrick’s Cathedral.
These portraits, painted on ivory, are more than just family mementos. They are important visual symbols of the success of free Black Americans at a time when racial oppression was the norm. Miniatures like these were expensive, so their existence is a testament to the financial achievements of the Toussaint family. The family is all dressed in the latest fashions, which assert both their personal dignity and their equality with white Americans. Juliette wears a tignon, a fashionable Federal period headdress that has its roots in Black women’s resistance to oppressive sumptuary laws.
Pierre and Juliette hired tutors to teach Euphemia. Every week, Euphemia wrote a letter to Pierre to show him how much she had learned. She often wrote the same letter in both French and English. It is clear from these examples that Euphemia found French more challenging and sometimes found the task boring. Euphemia’s letters are rare windows into the daily life of a free Black girl during the Federal period.