Obituary Page of Peter Guignon

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NYPL ID number: 119718
Rhoda G. Freeman Manuscript and Research Collection, 1956-1985


Manuscripts, Archives and Rare Books Division, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox, and Tilden Foundations

I found this obituary of Peter Guignon in the Rhoda Freeman Collection at the Schomburg Center. It was pasted on a page taken from a scrapbook whose owner remains unidentified. The clipping is undated but the obituary appeared in the January 31, 1885 issue of the New York Freeman. It was written by Peter's longtime friend Alexander Crummell and is poignant for the intimate details it provides of the deceased's life and character. Crummell’s obituary is fascinating for what it does not tell us about Peter’s background. It notes simply that his mother came from the West Indies to New York City where her only child was born in 18[13]. That comment alone suggested to me that his mother was black (or mulatto). Crummell does not mention a father, but a short obituary notice in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle stated that both of his parents came from Haiti.

Over time, I've gathered additional pieces of the puzzle but have not been able to solve it altogether. Here are my two possibilities:

1) Peter's father was a white man. City directories of the 1820s list both a Joseph and a James Guignon as free white males. In addition, I discovered documents signed by both a Pierre and a Jacques Guignon in the St. Peter's Catholic Church archives. Members of the Berard family were co-signatories to one of the documents, a marriage ban. The Berards were well-known grand blanc slaveholders who fled Haiti at the time of the revolution and arrived in New York in the late 1790s. It's likely that the two families moved in the same social circle. So it's possible that Peter's father was one of the Guignons who signed the documents. That would make him the "white Haitian" ancestor to whom my aunt referred.

2) Peter's father was a mulatto. A unknown cousin recently found me online and we've had a lot of telephone conversations about our ancestors. According to her, Peter's father was named Pierre and he left Haiti in 1803 at the time of the revolution. So it's quite likely that he is the Pierre Guignon who signed the marriage ban. My cousin also possesses his naturalization papers which are dated 1809. But these papers make no mention of his race. All she has after that are family comments that seem as fuzzy as those from my aunt: that Pierre was the son of a slaveholder, and a very light skinned mulatto as was his wife. But my cousin has no idea what happened to Pierre after he got to New York. So once again I'm left with questions. Why did Crummell not mention Pierre? Did Pierre die early? Leave the city? Leave his family and pass for white? And would the Berards have co-signed a marriage ban with a mulatto man? I simply don't know.


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“Obituary Page of Peter Guignon,” Black Gotham Archive, accessed March 21, 2018,