Downing, George T.

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George T. Downing

Entrepreneur, caterer, civil rights activist

Awarrior for human rights and free speech, George T. Downing was a well-known caterer and businessman who favored his conviction over his livelihood. He grew up in a family business and, when still a young man, ventured out on his own as an entrepreneur. He supported civil rights as a youth, developing early a compassion for justice and human rights that never waned. He also supported education for African American youth and school integration in Rhode Island.

Thomas and Rebecca West Downing were residents of Jinketig, Accomac County, Virginia, before they started a new life in New York in the early 1800s. There Thomas Downing became a restaurant owner. The clients for his Oyster House were the aristocrats and influential politicians of New York. The Downings' oldest son, George Thomas Downing, was born in New York City on December 30, 1819. He enrolled in Charles Smith's private school and later attended the old Mulberry Street school (or African Street #2), where he established what would become lasting ties with James McCune Smith, Henry Highland Garnet, Alexander Crummell, and Charles and Patrick Reason, all black abolitionists in later times.

When he was fourteen years old, Downing and other young boys around his age established a literary society and discussed what they called "live subjects," or conditions of the race. The Fourth of July was meaningless to them; thus, at one of their meetings they adopted a resolution to refuse to celebrate it on the grounds that, according to Men of Mark, it was "a perfect mockery" for African Americans. Still in his teens, Downing established a second literary society.

During this time black children in New York City attended school at their own risk. To protect their children, however, parents or guardians often accompanied them to and from school yet the climate on the streets among crowds of insulting whites was still unsafe. Nonetheless, Downing persevered, going on to complete his education at Hamilton College in Oneida County, New York. His interest in Underground Railroad activities had begun earlier, while he was still underage. He was arrested early on for smuggling from jail "Little Henry," a fugitive slave who had been incarcerated in New York City. Downing was released after paying the jail the slave's value.

Both George Downing and his father were interested in civil and human rights. The two worked together to lobby the New York legislature for equal suffrage and were delegates to the first convention of the American Reform Board of Disenfranchised Commissioners held in 1841.

Downing was both an entrepreneur and an effective abolitionist and civil rights leader. In 1842 he opened his own restaurant and catering business in New York, and in 1846, he opened what some called a branch of his father's Oyster House in Newport, Rhode Island. He continued to expand his business and in 1850 established a catering enterprise on Mathewson Street in Providence while he maintained his Rhode Island enterprise. Now a man of means, he built the luxurious, five-story Sea Girt Hotel in Newport in 1854 and restricted his business to white clientele. The complex also included his residence, a restaurant, a confectionery, and his catering business. A fire on December 15, 1860, destroyed the building, giving him an estimated loss of $40,000. Following that, he built a new structure on Downing Block and rented the upper floor to the federal government. That space served as a hospital for the Naval Academy.

Downing traveled extensively and before the Civil War he lived in Providence as well as Boston. His interest in the colored troops of the Civil War and their treatment in the military led him to Washington, D.C, where he organized several regiments. While there he was persuaded to manage the dining room for the House of Representatives and he did so for twelve years. His primary interest was not as much in the position as it was in the contact that he would have with political figures and opportunities to discuss race matters with them. He had strong political ties to Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts and to black abolitionist and orator Frederick Douglass.

Fights for Civil Rights

Race matters remained at the forefront of Downing's interests. In addition to his early interest in rescuing fugitive slaves, he had a continuing interest in the education of African American children, as demonstrated in 1847 when he became a member of the first board of trustees of the New York Society for the Promotion of Colored Children. Later on, in Rhode Island, he led a successful fight from 1857 to 1866 to abolish separate publicly supported schools in the state. For twelve years he urged the legislature to allow children to attend the school of their choice, regardless of their race.

In 1866 Downing and Frederick Douglass petitioned President Andrew Johnson to initiate a liberal Reconstruction policy, particularly in the South. The men, joined by fellow abolitionist John Sella Martin, petitioned Senator Charles Sumner to support the Fourteenth Amendment guaranteeing, among other rights, due process and equal protection under the law.


Born in New York City on December 30
Marries Serena Leanora de Grasse
Opens restaurant in New York City
Opens oyster house in Newport, Rhode Island
Becomes member of first board of trustees, New York Society for the Promotion of Colored Children
Establishes catering business in Providence, Rhode Island
Builds Sea Girt Hotel in Newport
Begins fight to abolish Rhode island's racially segregated public schools
Helps organize the Colored National Labor Union
Works successfully for passage of public accommodations law in Washington, D. C.
Dies at home in Newport, Rhode Island on July 21

At times Downing's views on politics and race were at odds with those of other race men. For example, he questioned Frederick Douglass's manual labor school proposal because he found it racially exclusive. Downing fought for the rights of all who were oppressed, not just African Americans. He was also persistent and passionate in his opposition to the American Colonization Society's interest in having blacks migrate to Liberia. When black abolitionist Henry Highland Garnet began efforts to emigrate blacks and formed a black African Civilization Society for that purpose, Downing fought vehemently to stop the plan. He took his fight to the conventions held in 1859, 1860, and 1864, often resort-ing to personal attacks and threats of violence to those who took up Garnet's efforts.

Downing was a key player in the successful fight to abolish segregated cars on the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. His efforts also led to admission of blacks to the U.S. Senate gallery and to passage of a public accommodations law in Washington. D.C., in 1873.

Downing's interest in labor issues led to his becoming an organizer of the Colored National Labor Union in 1889. He chaired the first convention and was the union's first vice president. Around this time he began to loosen his ties to the Republican party, in which he had been a longtime member, and in 1883 Downing broke with the party and supported northern Democrats.

A financially secure businessman, Downing retired in the early 1880s and devoted his time to his other interests—his dogs and a collection of memorabilia. He attended Union Congregational Church and established a close friendship with its pastor, Mahlon Van Horne who, with Downing's financial backing, was elected to the Newport School Committee and later became the first black legislator in the state's General Assembly. Downing was a member of the equal rights movement in Rhode Island and a member of several antislavery societies. He was also an organizer of the Grand United Order of Odd Fellows and for several years served as grand master. He was a Royal Arch Mason as well.

On November 24, 1841, Downing married Serena Leanora de Grasse, the daughter of George de Grasse, a prosperous landowner from Calcutta, India. He had courted her when she spent summer vacations at the home of political abolitionist Gerrit Smith, whose daughter was Serena's classmate at Clinton Seminary in Clinton, New York.

Downing, a tall, commanding figure with light complexion, had a lingering illness and then died at his Bellevue Avenue home in Newport, Rhode Island, on July 21, 1903. His three sons, three daughters, brother Peter W., and nephew Henry F. Downing survived him. His funeral services were held on July 24 at Emmanuel Church in Newport. He was remembered as a racial optimist, one who worked diligently for the cause of liberty and justice.



Asbury, Howard D. "George T[homas] Downing." In Dictionary of American Negro Biography. Eds. Rayford W. Logan and Michael R. Winston. New York: Norton, 1982.

Fishel, Leslie H. Jr. George Thomas Downing." In American National Biography. Eds. John A. Garraty and Mark C. Carnes. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Simmons, William J. Men of Mark: Eminent, Progressive and Rising. Cleveland: Geo. M. Rewell & Co., 1886.


DuJardin, Richard C. "George Thomas Downing." Providence Journal Company, 1997. (Accessed 1 October 2001).


There is a small collection of Downing's correspondence in the Houghton Library at Harvard University. Other collections in which individual letters may be found are those of Frederick Douglass (Anacostia, Virginia), John Jay at Columbia University, Blanche K. Bruce at Howard University, and Alexander Crummell in the Schomberg Center for Research in Black Culture, New York Public Library.

                                  Jessie Carney Smith