Thomas Downing: The Remarkable Oysterman

The Downing Oyster House, which stood at 5 Broad Street in Lower Manhattan, was famous for its oyster dishes in a time when New York City was renowned for its oyster industry. It was observed that about $6 million worth were being sold annually to the city’s numerous restaurants, fish stores and street vendors, shipped from Staten Island and from additional points along the eastern seaboard. In fact, oysters in nineteenth century NYC were as popular as pizza and hot dogs were to be in its twentieth century.

Downing’s was by no means NYC’s only oyster house but it was the city’s most outstanding, for two reasons: it was distinctly luxurious where most other oyster houses were generally mundane or purely sleazy; and, more importantly, for its remarkable proprietor: Thomas Downing, a free black man.

He was born in Virginia in January 1791 to free parents; a revivalist preacher convincing their owner, Captain John Downing, that slavery was antithetical to their mutually held Methodist beliefs. Hence, Captain Downing freed them and erected the Downing Meeting House, appointing Thomas’ parents caretakers. They worked hard, acquired land, and built a “humbled and unpretended” home regularly visited by the county’s fashionable families: “the Wharton family, the West family, the Taylor family, the Custis family, of George Washington connection, the Wise family, and other like notables.”

During the War of 1812, when Downing was about 21, he left home, married and settled down in Philadelphia for 7 years, eventually moving to New York City in 1819. His only marketable skill was acquired through work on his parents’ land in Chincoteague, an island village south of the Maryland-Virginia border, where he procured and prepared varieties of crustaceans…especially oysters, which he personally loved to consume. By 1823 he was listed in the city directory as an “oysterman” and, in 1825, moved his already fledgling oyster business to 5 Broad Street: a “refectory” in its basement where he was “offering the public not only oysters on the half shell, but also ‘big fat oysters, natives,’ roasted ‘on a large gridiron over oak shavings.'”

Downing’s Oyster House stood apart from the rest in that it was “the very model of comfort and prosperity, with its mirrored arcades, damask curtains, fine carpet, and chandelier” and catered to the “aristocracy as well as ladies in the company of their husbands or chaperons.” Businessmen, politicians, and other such men of means and ambitions, made it their favorite “headquarters” where they could meet to discuss their affairs. Many visitors to the city were sure to dine at Downing’s. Charles Dickens, during his first tour of America, was “introduced to 2,500 of New York’s upper crust” at a special “Boz Ball” which Downing catered. Downing even exported his oysters to special customers: Queen Victoria once received a shipment of choice oysters for which she reciprocated by sending Downing a gold chronometer watch.

Current view of where Downing’s Oyster House stood. Downing’s Oyster House was located at 5 Broad Street, but his basements, where fresh oysters were stored and escaping slaves were hidden, included numbers 3, 5, and 7 Broad Street.

“Downing did not limit his offerings, as the Canal Street and Bowery men did, to raw, fried or stewed oysters. His menu was far more elaborate, listing such dishes as scalloped oysters, oyster pie, fish with oyster sauce, and poached turkey stuffed with oysters.” He personally took charge of every facet of his establishment, from the most minute table settings to going out on fishing boats to purchase the very best oyster catches, that his clientele would time and again be satisfied.

It’s little wonder that a man so conscientious towards the affairs of his business would be similarly conscientious towards the inequality that plagued society during the 19th century. Thomas Downing was, after all, a black man and despite the legal basis of his “free” status , would’ve been fully aware of the fact that his freedom was restricted. New York City oyster houses themselves were predominantly run by African-Americans and Downing could either serve a white or black clientele, but not both; his decision to appeal to middle- and upper-class whites ironically bringing him prosperity in the face of segregation.  However, the less fortunate were never out of his thoughts and he always remained concerned for their welfare.

Downing “was liberal with his money. As his son George stated, he gave generously to his church; he “contributed freely to the needy; his beneficence was not restricted by race, nationality or color; he was a member of a number of benevolent institutions….He belonged both to the Odd Fellows, another black fraternal group, and to the New York African Society for Mutual Relief, which had been organized in 1810 to help those ‘incapable of attending to their usual vocation of employment’ because of illness or infirmity and ‘the widows and orphans of deceased members.’ And, like other entrepreneurs who owned high-class catering services and restaurants, he had created many jobs for African-American cooks and waiters”

He was a member of the abolitionist movement and helped to establish the all-black United Anti-Slavery Society of the City of New York. He also began devoting himself to improving education available to black children, serving as a trustee of the New York Society for the Promotion of Education Among Colored Children. Because New York City didn’t have a single high school open to black children, Downing and the other trustees established their own.

Next on Downing’s agenda was election reform. Even though black men formerly voted on the same basis as white men, in 1821 an amendment was placed on the state constitution restricting voting rights. But whereas whites required only a one year’s residence and $40 worth of real property to vote, blacks were required to live in the state for three years, own a $250 “freehold” and have paid taxes as well. Despite numerous petitions presented to the state legislature, reform wouldn’t come until 1870 when  the 15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution ended property qualifications for voting.

When Downing died on April 10, 1866, the Chamber of Commerce closed for the day out of respect for one of New York City’s most beloved and splendid citizens.  “That Thomas Downing, by his long-standing and strict integrity has proved himself worthy of, and receives, the highest respect of every man, colored or white, in this city and throughout the country, whose good fortune it is to know him, is most true,” the Weekly Anglo-African proclaimed in 1859. I agree: this city was fortunate to have had him as one of its citizens.

Acknowledgment: This post is derived/ quoted from an adaption of John H. Hewitt’s Mr. Downing and His Oyster House: The Life and Good Works of an African-American Entrepreneur (New York History, July 1993). It’s a marvelous work and I highly recommend it.