Diaspora

Black History Month 2022: Haiti influence felt in NYC with a sainthood candidate and subway and street namings – New York Daily News

For the uninformed New Yorker, immigrants from the Caribbean nation of Haiti may seem to be newcomers, but the term certainly doesn’t apply broadly: Haitian immigrants have been making their voices heard and achievements noticed for hundreds of years.
In this light, the recent co-naming of the MTA’s Newkirk Avenue subway station to Newkirk Avenue-Little Haiti and 18th-century-born Pierre Toussaint’s notable ascent towards sainthood in the Catholic Church should be no surprise.
Facing political oppression and economic hardship at home, Haitians came to the U.S. in sizable numbers in the 1960s and 1970s, with migrants and their descendants settling in South Florida and a number of Northeastern cities, including New York. But Haitian roots in the Americas run deeper.
West of New York, the first known permanent, non-indigenous settler in the area that would become present-day Chicago was a Black trader named Jean Baptiste Point du Sable, who arrived in 1790. He was believed to have come from the French colony of Saint-Domingue, which became the independent nation of Haiti after the revolution in 1804.
The achievement of Du Sable, called the “founder of Haiti,” was recognized in Brooklyn last fall when a portion of Brooklyn’s Flatbush Ave. was co-named Jean Baptiste Point Du Sable Blvd.
Another street co-naming pays tribute to an 18th-century New Yorker who is making history today — by progressing toward sainthood. Last April, a section of another borough thoroughfare, Church Ave., was co-named Pierre Toussaint Blvd. to honor a New Yorker whose caring in the 1700s still resonates strongly today.
An effort to honor his memory with canonization and sainthood has been making progress in the Catholic Church. Toussaint was declared “Venerable” in 1996 by Pope John Paul II, a move in that direction.
In 1968, New York’s John Cardinal O’Connor introduced Toussaint for canonization, and in 1989 and his remains were moved from St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral in Lower Manhattan to St. Patrick’s Cathedral in midtown — the only lay person buried among the city’s cardinals and archbishops.
Born a slave, Toussaint came to New York in 1797 when his owners fled the rumblings of the Haitian Revolution. After becoming the most popular hairdresser in the city, he used funds from his hard-earned fame to help others. His generosity and selflessness seemed boundless. While still a slave in New York, he paid for the freedom of others before his own, and helped his slave master’s destitute widow, who let him keep much of what he earned.
Toussaint was known for sharing whatever he had. For example, he risked his health and safety to help the sick and dying in New York during a yellow fever outbreak. According to the Archdiocese of New York, Toussaint also raised funds for the city’s first Catholic orphanage — and is called “the father of Catholic Charities” by many. Among his philanthropic pursuits was raising money for the city’s first school for Black children, and helping to fund the building of a Roman Catholic church that became Old St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Mulberry St.
And his giving extended outside New York. He provided funds to the Oblate Sisters of Providence in Baltimore, the first successful Roman Catholic sisterhood established by women of African descent, which today boasts the oldest continuously operating school for Black Catholic children in the U.S.
Today in New York, the street co-namings, and the elected officials who propose them, are signs of current Haitian happenings in New York.
Recently, recognition was given to the vibrant Haitian-American business and residential communities of Brooklyn with the renaming of the Newkirk Avenue subway station on the No. 2 and 5 lines. Haitian-rooted state Assemblymember Rodneyse Bichotte Hermelyn (D-Brooklyn) presented the legislation, which led to the name change last November.
Legislators such as Bichotte Hermelyn, former Brooklyn City Councilmember Mattheiu Eugene (who first introduced the Pierre Toussaint name change legislation while serving the city’s first Haiti-born Councilmember in 2019); Haiti-born Councilmember Rita Joseph, who represents Eugene’s former district, and former Manhattan Deputy Borough President Rose Pierre-Louis reflect the Haitian community’s increased and successful participation in civics and the electoral process.
In 2018, with help from then Brooklyn Councilmember Jumaane Williams, Bichotte Hermelyn got sections of the Flatbush and East Flatbush neighborhoods and part of Church Ave. designated “Little Haiti.” Along with that change, part of Nostrand Ave. was co-named Toussaint L’Ouverture Blvd., in honor of the Haitian general who led the successful Haitian Revolution.

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