Who is Toussaint Grey?

  • Article by: CHRIS RIEMENSCHNEIDER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 6, 2010 - 3:16 PM

And why did Jeremy Messersmith write a song about him?


Headstone for Toussaint Grey at Minneapolis Pioneers and Soldiers cemetery.

Photo: Chris Riemenschneider, Star Tribune

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Jeremy Messersmith's new album, "The Reluctant Graveyard," is loaded with stories about dead folks and cemeteries, but only one track is based on an actual grave: "Toussaint Grey, First in Life and Death."

Buried in the southeast corner of the Minneapolis Pioneers and Soldiers Memorial Cemetery, Toussaint L'Ouverture Grey was reportedly the first African-American born in Minneapolis (then St. Anthony), in 1859. His parents -- a barber and a seamstress -- were among the very few free blacks living in Minnesota at the time, according to Minnesota Historical Society records. The family's pride showed in their boy's name, taken from the general who led Haiti's 1802 slave revolt.

Like half of the cemetery's residents, Toussaint died as a child. He made it to age 8.

"I guess he had some kind of heart problem," said Messersmith, who learned of his story through Friendsofthecemetery.org (which raises sorely needed preservation money). "His grandfather was a freed slave who apparently was pretty good at reading stock tape and became rich, and he operated part of the Underground Railroad. It's a rich story."

Messersmith's song doesn't reference any of the real history, though. Instead, it's more a riff on the idea of a young boy's death, disguised in imagery of the boy leaving school at the end of the year: "Summer time is here again, and I'm not thinking of the friends I leave behind / No one wants to be the last one home."


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