1791- April 10, 1866
Notable: Entrepreneur & Activist
Given the period and the years that have passed, there aren’t many details about the early life of Thomas Downing. The year of his birth is known but not the exact month and date. Downing was born free on Chincoteague Island in the Chesapeake Bay off the coast of Eastern Virginia.
His parents had been enslaved and were owned by Captain William Downing. But at some point in the 1780s, a Methodist preacher visited the Captain and achieved a conversion of sorts that resulted in him freeing his slaves. After freeing the Downings, the Captain provided them with work in the form of managing a meeting house that he’d established.
Additional income was generated by working the Chesapeake and its shore. This included catching terrapins and fish, raking oysters, and digging for clams. The Downings used the money they made to improve their circumstances. They purchased property, built a home, and had their children educated by a tutor shared with other local children.
Downing was about 21 years old when the War of 1812 ended and moved North with the troops. The exact reason for Downing relocating at this particular time is unclear. It could be that he wanted to see more of the world or sought new opportunities. But sources also suggest that there might have been some tension with the Captain and/or his family regarding the Downings’ emancipation. This is because several years after freeing Downing’s parents, records show the Captain purchased at least one slave.
Whatever the reason for his departure, Downing eventually settled in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. While living in that city, Downing met and married Rebecca West. He spent some time fishing and oystering before managing an oyster bar. After six or seven years, Downing once again relocated, this time to New York City.
The oystermen who operated along the Chesapeake Bay where Downing grew up were predominantly Black. This was also the case in New York City which was then the oyster capital of the world. Oysters were viewed as food better fit for the poor and working class. This was due to them being inexpensive and frequently served at establishments that were deemed unsavory.
Downing started out working on a schooner that raked oysters and then offered them for sale. Eventually, Downing began selling oysters out of his home. He would wake up as early as 2 AM and row across the Hudson River (by himself) to tong for oysters in the Jersey Flats. Later he bought the best oysters possible from the oyster boats. But given the cheap price of oysters, either of these paths by themselves would not be very financially lucrative.
“Oyster cellars” also known as “oyster refectories” were plentiful in New York City. These were small oyster bars that were typically located in basements or cellars. The oysters were cheap and helped bring people in but the focus was on alcohol sales which generated more profits. These cellars had bad reputations as they were often poorly lit and attracted rowdy crowds where fights would break out. As patrons would have to be mindful of their safety and belongings they were avoided by women and the genteel.
A visionary, Downing set himself apart from the competition by creating an upscale environment in his oyster cellar. The business was located at 5 Broad Street in New York City’s financial district. Instead of a dim and bleak interior, Downing’s establishment was clean and spacious with quality curtains, crystal chandeliers, and luxurious carpets. The business offered a wide array of oyster-related dishes and later catered events. Its location and decor attracted an elite clientele.
The Thomas Downing Oyster House launch in 1825, meant Downing created America’s first fine dining restaurant and transformed oysters into a delicacy. The business generated a great deal of wealth for Downing. In time, Downing acquired the properties on both sides of the original address and expanded his operations. These accomplishments on their own are admirable but pale in comparison to Downing’s lesser-known legacy as an activist.
Downing was a conductor and the Oyster House became a major stop on the Underground Railroad. While New York’s elite dined in one section of the Oyster House, Downing hid escaped slaves in the storage room as they awaited safe passage to Canada. He was also actively involved with supporting a local school for Black children and was a member of the church. Downing also helped establish an organization to prevent the kidnapping of free people. After being beaten up for refusing to give up his seat on a segregated trolley car, Downing sued which helped launch the movement to desegregate the city’s trolleys.
Thomas Downing had a stroke in the early 1860s and died on April 10, 1866. This was only one day after The Civil Rights Act of 1866 declared all males born in America citizens. Out of respect for Downing the New York Chamber of Commerce closed on the day of his funeral to enable members to attend.
- Duffy, Jim. 2019. “Chincoteague Character of the Day: Thomas Downing, the ‘Oyster King’ of NYC.” Secrets of the Eastern Shore. August 3, 2019.https://www.secretsoftheeasternshore.com/chincoteague-character-of-the-day-thomas-downing-the-oyster-king/.
- Lam, Francis. 2018. “How Thomas Downing Became the Black Oyster King of New York.” The Splendid Table. Minnesota Public Radio. March 18, 2018.https://www.splendidtable.org/story/2018/03/14/how-thomas-downing-became-black-oyster-king-new-york.
- Lamback, Briona. 2022. “The Double Life of New York’s Black Oyster King.” Atlas Obscura. Atlas Obscura. November 8, 2022.https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/new-york-oyster-history.
- Malinowski, Sarah. 2022. “Thomas Downing – NYC Oyster King & Abolitionist.” Fishers Island Oyster Farm. June 22, 2022.https://www.fishersislandoysters.com/blog/2021/2/22/thomas-downing.
- Spilman, Rick. 2020. “Thomas Downing, From Son of Slaves to Oyster King of New York City.” Old Salt Blog. February 22, 2020.https://www.oldsaltblog.com/2020/02/thomas-downing-from-son-of-slaves-to-oyster-king-of-new-york-city/.
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