Caribbean American Heritage Month
By Rev. Gregory S. Smith
In recognition of June as Caribbean-American Heritage month, The Witherspoon-Jackson Historical and Cultural Society has chosen to acknowledge the historically fervent group of Haitian Americans who adopted the Witherspoon-Jackson Community in Princeton as their home. We further choose to highlight and honor one of those surviving matriarchs, Bertha Toussaint, now 80 years young, who is deemed as a “community mother”.
The Haitian people, often noted for their incredible resilience, respect for family values and education, bears the distinction of being descendents from the first country where African slaves (through a successful revolt) were able to abolish slavery and establish themselves an independent nation. The small and beautiful country of Haiti has experienced its share of natural, political and economic challenges since the 1791 revolt. Over the years these challenges have led many families to pursue life in America. Bertha encompasses many of these values in her own story.
During the late 1960’s and early 1970’s many Haitians were migrating to major urban centers like Boston, New York, and Miami, for political, employment and educational opportunities. In similar pursuit, several Haitian families also migrated to the Princeton area. Bertha chose Princeton because of the domestic and educational opportunities that were plentiful at Princeton University, Princeton Hospital and within the homes of many wealthy Princetonian families.
It is believed that one of the earliest known Haitian immigrants was a man by the name of Gene Immes, who arrived to Princeton in 1969. He rented a home on Leigh Avenue and partnered with longtime African American Princeton resident Mrs. Parker to bring several Haitian families into Princeton.
Today, New Jersey accounts for one of the largest homes for Haitian immigrants in the U.S. (50,000-plus people). A majority of Haitians in the state now live in places like Newark, Irvington, Orange, East Orange, Elizabeth, Bayonne, and Jersey City.
Bertha Toussaint wanted a life of political freedom. Bertha chose Princeton and recalls first visiting the town in 1969. She was a vibrant and well-educated 30 year old woman with a diplomat visa. She was a young wife and mother who made the difficult choice to leave behind her husband (an upcoming congressman) and children under the care of her mother Carida Jean-Simon in pursuit of something greater for her family.
As a former educator who began her career as a teacher in 1963, Bertha had the privilege to travel to Israel and train in an economic development certification program designed to empower underdeveloped countries. The experience opened her eyes to a new way of thinking. Upon her return from Israel in 1969, she briefly accepted a government position in Haiti within the department of agriculture. Bertha, however, realized that the political system in Haiti (a dictatorship) challenged her own political beliefs and the training she received in Israel. Fearful that this could result in life or death consequences, Bertha accepted the invitation of her sister to return to Princeton.
Bertha said that she left Haiti in 1970 with “a suitcase and ambition.” Upon arriving, she learned to speak English through the help of her co-workers at Princeton Hospital. Bertha began a long and arduous journey to fulfill her ambition to have her family join her. She accepted a job at the Trenton Window cleaning company, even though in Haiti she had people working for her. The adjustment in life status was challenging, but Bertha remembered that her primary reason for coming was to expand the horizons for herself and her children. This became her sole motivation.
The Princeton community, however, offered her a combination of support and an employment network. Bertha recalls sharing a rented room with her sister in the home of Mrs. Jessie Holland. She got a job at Princeton Hospital in environmental services until a lab technician job became available at Johnson and Johnson. Bertha made a successful career at Johnson and Johnson, rising to becoming a quality control officer. It took her 5 long and arduous years to fulfill her dream of bringing her five children here for a better educational opportunity. With the help of her mother who came to continue to support the rearing, The family moved into a rented house on Green Street, and Bertha, who instilled strong educational ethics in her family, enrolled the children in St. Paul Catholic School.
The children, who only spoke creole French, were supported in the Catholic faith, learned English and eventually were enrolled in the Princeton Public school system where they thrived. They excelled academically, in athletics and in extracurricular activities. All five children graduated from Princeton High School, obtained graduate and postgraduate educations and now lead incredibly productive lives. Romy owns her own successful Yoga training studio, Marjorie worked many years as director of Princeton University’s Community House and now lives in Miami, Carine is a school counselor at The Hun School, Moshe owns a successful business in Haiti and Joi teaches in the Trenton Public School District. Bertha is now the proud grandmother of many grandchildren and great-grandchildren. They too have also pursued advanced educational degrees.
Bertha Toussaint and her family
Bertha, following the example of Gene Emmes, Anne Marie Joachim Anne Prichard, Elizabeth Vieux and many others, sacrificed so much in her pursuit of the American Dream. She worked very hard in positions beneath her educational training seeking to take full advantage of the opportunities America had to offer.
Bertha officially left Princeton in 1988 after an opportunity to purchase a home in Lawrenceville became available. She and her brother, the late Guillaume Masseus, lived there, and she cared for him until he passed away in 2014. In 2019 she moved to an adult community in Lawrenceville and spends her days praying, working out at her favorite fitness center, traveling to visit her children, grandchildren and relatives, and cooking an array of incredible Haitian cuisines to make the people she loves happy and joyful!
Bertha Touissant ‘s story typifies the resilience of extraordinary people. She is a part of our collective story and we honor her tenacity, passion and perseverance. Bertha plans to publish a book, to be released in the very near future. A familiar Haitian proverb is LESPWA FÈ VIV, which means HOPE MAKES ONE LIVE.
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WJHCS Trustees Recent Accomplishments and Honors:
Honoree: Leighton Newlin
Date: January 5, 2022
Elected: Princeton Councilmember
Honoree: Rev. Gregory Smith
Award: Ordination and Installation as Pastor
Date: November 20, 2021
Awarded By: Second Calvary Baptist Church, Hopewell, NJ
Honoree: Shirley Satterfield
Award: Community Engagement Award
Date: November 17, 2021
Awarded By: Princeton University and Pace Center for Civic Engagement
Honoree: Shirley A. Satterfield
Award: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Award
Date: January 16, 2021
Awarded By: New Jersey Education Association (NJEA)