Early Years: 1791–1819
Thomas Downing was born on January 27, 1791, to formerly enslaved parents on Chincoteague Island in Accomack County on the Eastern Shore of Virginia. Downing’s mother and father had been enslaved by Captain John Downing, a major local landowner, until a traveling Methodist preacher convinced him that slavery was inhumane and anti-Christian. After converting to the Methodist faith, John Downing established the first Methodist meeting house in the area about 1783 and freed all of his enslaved laborers, including Downing’s parents, who became caretakers of the meeting house.
Downing’s parents purchased land on one of the inlets of Chincoteague and raised him in their home there, which was later described by Downing’s eldest son, George Thomas Downing, as “humble” but bearing the “impress of industry, taste and happiness.” Growing up by the waters of Chincoteague Bay and the Atlantic Ocean, Downing spent time catching and harvesting clams, oysters, and terrapin (a species of turtle found in the brackish tidal marshes of the area). This connected him to a history of African American involvement in maritime occupations along the Chesapeake Bay dating back to the 1600s. After church on Sundays, his family often entertained some of the local gentry, including the Custis, Wharton, and Wise families, which accustomed Downing to moving among prominent people.
Downing left Chincoteague during the War of 1812, either joining the army or following troops north, according to different sources. He settled in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where he met and married his wife, Rebecca West. There are no accounts of his time there, but the city boasts a notable history of African American involvement in the culinary industry. Black Philadelphians worked as waiters, cooks, and restaurateurs in the city, and the renowned African American caterer Robert Bogle was a notable presence.
New York City
In 1819, the Downings moved to New York City, perhaps drawn by opportunities in the growing city and New York State’s transformation from a slaveholding to a free state. (In 1817, New York’s legislature mandated July 4, 1827, as the date granting freedom to all remaining enslaved New Yorkers.) George Thomas Downing, the first of the Downing’s five children, who was born in 1819, said that his father had “a letter of introduction to Mr. Wm. Hudson, a colored gentleman, who was much respected in his day” and who took an interest in his welfare. Through Hudson, Downing found employment with William Bunker, who owned a hotel on Broadway. By the early 1820s, Downing was calling himself an oysterman and running an oyster stand. He also advertised his services as white washer and house cleaner. By 1825 he had leased the basement of 5 Broad Street and opened an oyster refectory, a type of eating and drinking establishment. Downing was not the only African American in the oyster industry at the time. Black men found work at various levels of the booming oyster industry in New York, including on sloops that harvested oysters, as oyster basket makers, as street vendors selling raw and fried oysters, and as refectory owners catering to a largely white clientele.
According to historian Mark Kurlansky, New York became world-famous in the nineteenth century for the abundance, flavor, and size of its oysters. Oysters were widely available in the estuaries of the Hudson Bay, which boasted 350 square miles of oyster beds. The abundance of oysters made them inexpensive, so they were consumed regularly by people of all socioeconomic classes. Restaurants, taverns, and cooks from the humblest of family homes to the city’s stateliest mansions served up raw, cooked, and pickled oysters in an astonishing variety of recipes.
Downing’s Oyster House
Downing proved a sharp entrepreneur, who understood the power of hard work, good business relationships, and self-promotion. As an oysterman, he rose early in the morning to row himself across the Hudson Bay, tong for oysters, and make them available for sale. As a restauranteur, he was known to arrive at the docks early enough to purchase the best of the catch from arriving oyster sloops. Sometimes he would row out to meet them to ensure he obtained the highest quality and best price before his competitors. He endeared himself to the captains of these vessels because, according to his son George Downing, he was “liberal in his payments and treated them in a generous manner when they came to his house.”
Downing also harnessed the power of print advertising to promote the superior quality of his restaurant and his product and his reliability to deliver it. His published ads in the New York Evening Post, the New York Herald, and the New York Tribune during the 1830s and 1840s inviting visitors to Downing’s to experience the “delicacy of flavor” of his oysters, which “cannot be beaten.” The ads also assured prospective clients that he could meet all supply needed and deliver “at the shortest notice” to “all parts of the city, Brooklyn and Jersey City.” Downing also was not above using maritime curiosities to draw diners, once advertising in 1838 an “EXTRAORDINARY TURTLE … of rather singular description” to be displayed at his establishment before being “served up in my usual superior style.” This combination of showmanship and self-marketing worked. Downing’s name soon became synonymous with oysters. Articles written about him described him as “a celebrated oyster vendor,” “the great oyster man,” and the “well-known colored caterer and oysterman.”
Downin found success by meeting the emerging need for respectable fine dining establishments in New York, and in the process built an influential white clientele. In the early 1800s, New York City was a popular destination for visiting European and American dignitaries, celebrities, and members of the upper class, but tasteful dining facilities were rare outside of private homes. Downing’s first location at 5 Broad Street had humble beginnings like many other oyster cellars, but placed him conveniently in the heart of New York’s business district near several banks, the Customs House, and the Merchant’s Exchange. By 1835 he had leased the properties on either side, at numbers 3 and 7 Broad Street, expanding the dining area into one side and taking advantage of an underground stream in the other one to construct an oyster vault that allowed him to keep oysters fresh until they were ready to be cooked or dressed and served. Fitted with fine carpeting, a chandelier, mirrors, and damask curtains, Downing’s Oyster House offered a setting respectable enough for prominent men, their wives, and their business partners. “It was fashionable for ladies and gentlemen to go to his house evenings and enjoy a repast which would cause their sons and daughters of this day to long for frequent repetitions,” noted George Downing.
The menu at Downing’s Oyster House also exceeded the fare typically served at oyster refectories. It included oysters roasted “on a gridiron over oak shavings,” as well as “scalloped oysters, oyster pie, turkey stuffed with oysters,” and terrapin, a local turtle that was another popular nineteenth-century delicacy. In October 1845, the New York Tribune listed Downing’s Oyster House as the earliest of thirteen of the city’s pioneer eating houses alongside of Delmonico’s, which was widely regarded as one of the first and best fine dining restaurants in the United States. This would not be the only time that Downing’s and Delmonico’s would be referenced together. In his popular 1863 study The Old Merchants of New York City, Walter Barrett included taking “lunch and a glass of wine at Delmonico’s; or a few raw oysters at Downing’s” as part of a typical day in the life of a member of New York’s merchant class.
Downing amassed considerable social influence among the merchants, bankers, politicians, and newspaper men who frequented his establishment, which included attorney George Templeton Strong and former New York City mayor Philip Hone. Describing the esteem in which many people held his father, George Downing writes that it was either “good fortune or tact.” Likely it was both. Downing’s relationship with New York Herald owner James Gordon Bennett, for instance, may have been the source of his venture into print advertising and the reason behind his kind treatment in its articles. In an oft-repeated story, Bennett arrived at Downing’s one day in the 1830s and confessed his financial woes to the proprietor’s sympathetic ear and left that day with an unexpected and generous loan of several thousand dollars to keep the newspaper afloat.
Downing’s business interests also included catering and exporting oysters. He catered oysters for major events, including political balls and steamboat launchings. His most well-known commission was in February 1842, when he catered the Boz Ball at the Park Theater in honor of visiting celebrity writer Charles Dickens. Hailed as the most sophisticated event of the season, the ball attracted 2,500 guests who consumed more than 25,000 oysters.
Downing shipped fresh and pickled oysters throughout the United States and globally to France, the West Indies, and England, taking advantage of the new connections being forged by the extension of the railroad across the United States and the emergence of steamboats to ship perishable goods across the Atlantic. One of his proudest possessions, according to his family, was a gold chronometer watch sent to him in appreciation by Queen Victoria after he sent a gift of a container of his best oysters. American expatriate Colonel Herman Thorn, whose lavish salons in Paris during the 1830s and 1840s often made news, created a sensation by securing Downing’s oysters for his receptions. Downing’s restaurant, catering, and shipping enterprises enabled him to accumulate considerable wealth—he was reportedly valued at $100,000 by 1857, which made him one of the richest Black men in antebellum New York City. He used this wealth to educate his youngest son, Peter, in Paris and start his eldest son, George, off in the catering and restaurant business. In 1845, George T. Downing, Confectioner and Caterer, opened at 692 Broadway, the first of several of his real estate and culinary enterprises.
Community and Political Activism
Downing’s prosperity made him a member of an elite class of Black New Yorkers who championed the rights of African Americans. Most African Americans were at the bottom rung of the socioeconomic ladder in the city, holding the lowest-paying jobs, disproportionately living in substandard housing, and having considerably less access to educational opportunities. Anti-abolitionist and anti-Black riots in 1834 and 1863 resulted in white mobs ravaging Black homes, churches, orphan asylums, and other facilities. Downing involved himself in several key organizations committed to changing the oppressed conditions of African Americans. In 1830, he was one of forty delegates selected to attend the First Annual Convention for the Improvement of Free People of Color held in Philadelphia. The delegates, which included other Black New Yorkers such as journalist Philip A. Bell and religious leader the Reverend Samuel E. Cornish, met in secret for five of the convention’s ten days to avoid the threat of white violence before deciding that the goals of the organization required them to stand publicly as examples for the advancement of the cause of people of color. In 1829, Downing was one of several Black parents and leaders who called for the dismissal of Charles Andrews, the white principal of the African Free School that his children attended, because Andrews had punished a student for calling a Black man a “gentleman.” Downing was a trustee of the New York Society for the Promotion of Education among Colored Children, which was founded in 1848 and created the first high school for African Americans in the city and two additional elementary schools.
Downing was engaged with the abolitionist cause. Between 1833 and 1836, he helped found the all-Black New York City Anti-Slavery Society and helped organize a celebration in New York City of the end of slavery in the British West Indies in 1838. Downing’s Oyster House was also a stop on the Underground Railroad; people fleeing enslavement were known to have been hidden in the basement from the 1830s through the end of slavery in the 1860s. Downing also joined the fight to restore the right to vote to Black men in New York. Most Black men had been effectively disenfranchised in 1821 when the new constitution required them to own $250 worth of property and be state residents for at least three years to vote. (There was no property requirement for white men, who were required to have only a year of residency.) Though ultimately unsuccessful, Downing participated in campaign meetings, helped petition efforts, and in 1839 served as vice president of the New York Association for the Political Evaluation and Improvement of the Colored People.
By the 1840s, Downing was moving among an elite class of Black men whose stature and means afforded them greater privileges than many Americans, Black or white, but who still suffered the indignities of white supremacist ideologies and systemic racism. Downing shied away from public oration. No records of speeches on behalf of the many causes he supported exist, but several of his personal encounters with and resistance toward discriminatory treatment are well documented and communicate his uncompromising character. On December 30, 1840, Downing was asked to exit one of New York’s whites-only segregated railroad cars and refused. He resisted attempts to remove him, sustaining injuries from railroad car agents who “struck him under the ear … beat and kicked him, broke his hat, and forced him violently out of the car.” An account of the court case that followed in February 1841 was published in the abolitionist newspaper the Liberator. In 1855, Downing again refused to exit a trolley car after agents repeatedly demanded it. This time he departed unmolested after a band of supporters pushed the trolley when the driver refused to go forward.
Downing was quick to redress wrongs that affected his business, often taking offenders to court. Offered a discounted paper note as payment for a meal at his restaurant in June 1837, Downing refused and insisted on payment in coin. In a letter sent to the New York Herald, the diner—a southern visitor—took great offense at Downing’s manner and dogged insistence on payment, going so far as to express “how I wish I had him down in Virginia.” The southerner and his companions, however, eventually submitted appropriate payment rather than risk a scandal with the popular restaurateur. Downing also sued prominent white clients over shortages on his catering bills. In each of these cases, Downing communicated his unwillingness to be held to anything but the highest standards regardless of his race and used the wealth his prosperous businesses afforded him to procure justice.
Downing also was involved in prominent community and religious organizations. He was a faithful and longtime member of St. Philip’s Episcopal Church, a Black church founded in the early 1800s, and served on the vestry, a position reserved for elite Black New Yorkers, for several years during the 1840s. He held memberships in fraternal organizations such as the Grand United Order of Odd Fellows, helping to organize a major festival in 1848. He also joined benevolent organizations such as the New York African Society for Mutual Relief in providing care to Black New Yorkers who were sick, impoverished, or widowed.
In 1863, according to the Boston Daily Advertiser, a new landlord bought the original Broad Street property that Downing had leased for over thirty years, forcing its closure. For a short time, Downing operated an eatery in the Merchants’ Exchange Building at 55 Wall Street, arranged by friends who insisted on keeping him close by. Downing, however, had slowed down considerably with age and the facility did not last long. His son George Thomas Downing, who was by then a major hotelier, restaurateur, and caterer, took over Downing’s remaining operations after he retired. On April 10, 1866, Thomas Downing died at the age of 75. The passing of one of the city’s favorite restaurateurs was noted by such prominent publications as the New York Times and Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper. The New York Chamber of Commerce closed in his honor on the day of his funeral, which was held at St. Phillip’s. According to George Downing, his casket was “followed by a cortege of his fellow-citizens from all classes [which] spoke of the universal esteem of which he was held.”