Author: Joanne Hyppolite

Supervisory Curator of the African Diaspora, National Museum of African American History and Culture

Thomas George Downing (1791–1866)

Thomas George Downing was a culinary entrepreneur known as the “Oyster King of New York” who owned and operated Downing’s Oyster House, one of the most successful eating houses and catering companies in New York during the nineteenth century. Downing was born in 1791 on Chincoteague Island, on the Eastern Shore of Virginia. His parents had been enslaved by a major landowner in the area and freed prior to 1783. Growing up surrounded by the waters of the Chesapeake Bay familiarized Downing with harvesting seafood such as clams and oysters. Downing left Virginia during the War of 1812 and traveled north. He lived in Philadelphia for several years, where he married Rebecca West. In 1819, the Downings moved to New York City. By 1823, Downing was working as an oysterman, and by 1825 he had opened an oyster cellar at 5 Broad Street in the city’s business district. By 1835, his business had expanded to include catering and shipping oysters nationally and internationally. Downing prospered by cultivating good business relationships, promoting the superior value of his product and services, and catering to the need for respectable dining establishments for New York’s white business and elite classes. Downing was actively involved in New York’s free Black community, including its struggle for equal rights and its many civic organizations. Thomas Downing died on April 12, 1866, and was commemorated throughout New York City. His legacy lived on in his eldest son, George Thomas Downing, who also became a major nineteenth-century hotelier, restauranteur, and activist.