The Downing family of caterers and restaurateurs, Thomas and his sons George T. and Peter W., were activists in the causes of the abolition of slavery, black suffrage, and black education. They assisted Afro-Americans fleeing slavery before Emancipation as well as those escaping terrorism in the South in the post-Civil War period. Like many free blacks living in cities, they took up the catering trade. Similar to undertaking and barbering, catering was a personal service occupation which offered a degree of opportunity for enterprising people of color.
Thomas Downing (pictured), the son of freed slaves from Virginia, specialized in oysters. He opened an oyster cellar on Broad Street in New York City in the 1820s, gradually expanding it and earning a fine reputation. Often oyster cellars were “dives” but his was considered first class. He won awards for his pickled oysters which, along with his boned and jellied turkeys, were especially popular at Christmas (see 1856 ad). Over time he owned the Broad Street place and at least one other in NYC and, according to a Rhode Island directory, another in Providence. However, the press seemed always to confuse the various Downings, so it’s possible the latter was under the direction of a son.
Because of the fame of Thomas’s oysters, his wealth (when he died in 1866, his estate was believed to be worth $100,000 – over $100 million today), and his efforts to end slavery, Thomas was regarded as a patriarch of NYC’s black community. When he was ordered off a trolley car in 1855 because of his race, people in the street recognized him and pushed the stopped car forward until the conductor permitted him to continue his ride.
Thomas’s place on Broad was patronized by men in political and financial circles and he was rumored to have influential connections. Both his sons, George and Peter, had enough pull to win concessions for restaurants in government buildings. Peter ran an eating place in the Customs House in NYC, while George, a friend of MA Senator Charles Sumner, managed one in the House of Representatives in Washington, D.C. George (pictured) was also well known as the proprietor of a resort hotel, the Sea Girt House, in Newport, Rhode Island.
Thomas saw to it that his children were well educated. But neither this nor their accomplishments saved them from racial abuse. George was an eloquent writer who often confronted racism in his writings. When he lost his concession in the House restaurant in 1869 he wrote a letter to a newspaper asserting that he had been rejected because he defied the rule against serving black customers in the same dining room with whites. Nor did the family’s achievements prevent Peter’s son, Henry F. Downing, a newspaper editor, playwright, and former consul to Loanda, from being refused service in a New York restaurant in 1895.
© Jan Whitaker, 2009