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Vodou in the Early Republic: More Questions Than Answers

By John Davies

[Snip] On May 7, 1800, Calypso, a woman “aged about 30 years” from the French Caribbean colony of Saint-Domingue, was baptized in [Old] St. Joseph’s Roman Catholic Church in Philadelphia. With her baptism, she took the name Mary Claudia Calypso.[1] Calypso was one of over 800 free and enslaved Dominguans of African descent who arrived in Pennsylvania between 1789 and 1810 during the violent social, political, and cultural transformation that we know today as the Haitian Revolution. During this period, roughly 25,000 Dominguans made their way to the United States, settling largely (though not exclusively) in port cities from New Orleans to Savannah to Boston. Of that number, perhaps 4000 were free people of African descent, and at least another 6000 arrived as slaves.

Like Calypso, many Dominguans of African descent in Philadelphia embraced the Roman Catholic faith. Nor was such activity confined to Philadelphia. A famous example would be Pierre Toussaint, who arrived in New York City in 1797 as a slave, remaining in the service of his mistress until her death in 1807, and supporting the Church through his faith and actions until his death in 1853. Currently, the Roman Catholic Church is considering Toussaint for sainthood.

But did Dominguans of African descent who remained in the United States also practice Vodou? A perceptive audience member asked me this at a 2013 SHEAR panel. Since I had argued that migrants in Philadelphia were invested in a French, Roman Catholic identity, I answered “no,” a response that was met with polite skepticism. The existence of Vodou in nineteenth-century New Orleans was suggested as evidence to the contrary.

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