How a child of Virginia slaves became the oyster king of New York – and a favorite of the Queen of England
By MATTHEW KORFHAGE | The Virginian-Pilot | Published: February 15, 2020
(Tribune News Service) — When Thomas Downing died in 1866 at age 75, the New York Chamber of Commerce did something it simply doesn’t do on a weekday: It closed.
Its members, among them the most prosperous merchants in Manhattan, had decided they’d rather go to Downing’s funeral.
Downing’s wake was reported by The New York Times in stirring detail, from the “long line of carriages, well filled with mourners” to multiple delegations of Freemasons “in full regalia.” Crowds thronged the streets in front of a church that was packed from its doors to its pulpit, waiting for a chance to view “for the last time the face of him who was well known to all.”
Downing was a towering figure, the acknowledged “oyster king of New York” when New York was oyster capital of the known universe.
In its location at Broad and Wall streets, Thomas Downing’s Oyster House was the most famous and opulent shell hall in the city, the preferred slurping spot of New York’s aristocracy in the Gilded Age. Downing had become known citywide for his cultivated manners and discerning taste, serving oysters to Charles Dickens and Queen Victoria.
He also was the son of Virginia slaves.
He achieved his great success as a black man in an age of enslavement and segregation – serving well-heeled white people at a restaurant where his own family would not be allowed to eat.
“I think the fact that a black man, that early, had such a prominent restaurant had an important social impact,” says Mark Kurlansky, author of The Big Oyster, a history of New York oysters. “He was a real player. He was an important New York citizen.”
Downing’s rise from his childhood raking oysters on Chincoteague Island to the upper echelons of New York society life – while all the while using his oyster cellars as a stop on the Underground Railroad – is one of the more remarkable stories of its time.
But it’s also one of the lesser known, especially in his home state of Virginia.
Downing’s oyster hall helped form our modern idea of the luxury oyster house, Kurlansky says. But his tale nonetheless fell into into deep obscurity for well over a century. Until 15 years ago, Google and book searches turn up scant mentions of his name. And even today, amid a resurgence of historical interest, Downing lacks so much as a Wikipedia page.
A Chincoteague childhood
Thomas Downing was born a free man only because of a quirk of history.
His parents were born enslaved to prominent Virginia plantation owner John Downing. But before Thomas Downing was born in 1791, a traveling revivalist preacher stirred up Downing’s religious fervor. He ordered his slaves freed in the name of Methodism, which in its early days did not allow its congregants to be slaveholders.
John Downing set up a Methodist meeting house, and Thomas Downing’s newly free parents found work as its pious caretakers. They took the Downing family’s last name as their own.
Like many on Chincoteague, Thomas Downing spent his early life fishing, clamming, digging and raking oysters. For education he was sent to a prominent local tutor, the same one who schooled future governor Henry Wise.
His parents were able to buy land and build a humble home on Chincoteague. After church on Sundays, his parents often entertained some of the distinguished families in the area, including the Whartons, the Wises and the Custis family – connections that Thomas Downing might have been able to use in New York.
There was only a small time frame where this situation could have come about, says Ed Ayres, a historian at the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation.
The Methodist church later revised its views on slavery for the worse – John Downing is on record buying a slave later in life – and the Haitian slave revolt of the 1790s sent the slave states of America into a punitive panic.
“Early on there was a window where they made it very easy to free slaves,” Ayres says. “Then they started to get nervous after the Haitian rebellion. There were a couple rebellions in Virginia, and then they started making it harder to free slaves. You technically had to leave the state if you were a free black, though it was very inconsistently enforced.”
At age 21, Thomas Downing left Virginia with troops returning home from the War of 1812, first landing in Philadelphia, where he used the skills he learned in childhood and worked as an oysterman.
Philadelphia was a significant stop for free black people moving north, says Joanne Hyppolite, a curator at the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington.
“There was law that after you’ve had an enslaved person in Philadelphia for six months they can be freed,” Hyppolite says. “Philadelphia was thought of as a place of freedom.”
Indeed in Philadelphia, then the seat of government, George Washington kept slaves on a strict rotation in and out of the city – a loophole in the law – in order to keep slaves under his ownership.
But though Philadelphia is where Downing met his wife, Rebecca West, he was there only seven years before moving on to New York. And by the 1920 census, he was registered as an oysterman there as well.
Success in New York
It wasn’t altogether unusual for a black man in those days to be in the oyster business in New York.
Oysters were one of the big sources of opportunity for African Americans who’d left the oyster-rich slave states of Maryland and Virginia. The oystermen of Staten Island formed one of the first and oldest free black communities in America, and in the 1820s the majority of registered oystermen were black.
Downing’s success in business came from a simple insight: He realized he could make more money if he took oysters upmarket. Indeed, he was one of the first – outside of steakhouses like Delmonico’s that didn’t specialize in oysters – to turn them into a luxury item.
In the 19th century, oysters were New York’s original hot dog, a democratic and universal food loved by people rich and poor, black and white.
But from streetside stalls lining the streets of Manhattan to dank shell cellars in Five Points, oyster bars were often rough-and-tumble houses of ill-repute – unsuitable for a lady and maybe a place you’d get mugged for your coin purse.
“Certainly at the time he was operating, there were tons of other refectories in New York,” Hyppolite says. “Most of them are what you’d call dives. You ordered your oysters, and they weren’t tastefully furnished."
“They were kind of whorehouses, really,” Kurlansky says.
Even before opening Thomas Downing’s Oyster House in 1925, Downing built a reputation as a hard-working and particularly shrewd procurer of oysters. At first, he tonged his own in the Jersey Flats, and then moved on to rowing a boat to the oystermen in the dim early morning, buying only the best oysters – and getting his pick before anyone else did. He also paid liberally to ensure the best product.
He was a man that "knew not tire,” his son George wrote in a tribute after his death.
But his childhood connections to prominent families in Virginia may have been important to his success.
“He had these relationships with prominent politicians and businessmen, and knew how to work those circles," Hyppolite says. “Certainly I wonder if this figured in his decision to place the oyster bar so prominently.”
At the heart of New York’s financial universe, Thomas Downing’s Oyster House was outfitted with mirrored arcades and an imposing chandelier, a space far more impressive than the tight oyster caves of his contemporaries.
Downing’s menu veered just as elaborate, with esoteric oysterly concoctions like oyster-stuffed turkey, scalloped oysters and fish in oyster sauce. A recipe adapted from writings about Downing’s restaurant – an oyster pan roast with wine and chili – is served today at the National Museum of African American History and Culture.
“He didn’t invent the idea of oysters being respectable," Kurlansky says. "They were at banquets. But he was one of the first to have an upscale oyster restaurant. It was a famous place.”
It became the preferred meeting spot for the fat cats and big wigs of the financial district, and also a place where the women and men of the aristocracy were happy to be seen. Downing expanded into both spaces next door, and diversified into a busy catering and international mail-order business.
Downing’s place in history stems from this success, but also in part from his customer base – the white politicians, writers and diarists whose lives were meticulously transcribed into history.
“The record around the oyster house is very strong. That isn’t the case with the thousands of other African American businesses that existed," Hyppolite says.
In 1842 Downing was the oysterman chosen to cater New York’s notorious Boz Ball, a multimillion-dollar feast (in today’s money) held in honor of an ungrateful Charles Dickens. The party’s attendees included the Astors, the Jacobs and the mayor of New York.
Dickens later made New York pay for its hospitality, describing the city’s most acclaimed food as “piles of indigestible matter,” taking special note of the oysters “disappearing down gaping gullets – a solemn and awful sight to see.”
Queen Victoria, another international customer, was a much bigger fan: She was so tickled with the “very choice” oysters he’d shipped, she sent Downing a gold chronometer in gratitude.
Don Bell helps curate the Copps Island Oysters museum in Connecticut – which he began in his own garage by collecting old oyster cans. By appointment, he takes visitors on a guided tour of the practices of ancient oystermen and clammers.
But his favorite part of every tour, he says, is the oyster crock he procured from Thomas Downing’s Oyster House – one of only three remaining crocks he’s aware of.
“I tell (guests) about how well-known Thomas Downing was – he was very wealthy. I talk about how the Chamber of Commerce shut down for the day. All the politicians went there to eat, the women loved it because of the fancy drapes. Police went there, the military.
“But little did they know what was going on in his basement. I ask people on the tour what they thought he was doing down there. And so far, only two people ever got it right. Most people guess that he was bootlegging whiskey.”
A double life
Downing wasn’t making whiskey in his basement.
Beneath the Oyster House, the cellars where Downing stored his oysters and wine stretched out across three addresses under the city’s streets and sidewalks.
And in those cellars, beneath the city’s politicians and law enforcement, Downing operated what became one of the most famous and important stops on the Underground Railroad – helping fugitive slaves from the South escape bondage on their way to Canada and freedom.
"The proprietor’s son, George, led fugitive slaves down into the basement,” wrote Sandee Brawarsky in the New York Times in 2001. “Amid bottles of wine and molasses, they found shelter from the bands of blackbirders, bounty hunters roaming the streets in search of runaways.”
For Hyppolite, Downing’s double life makes him a complicated figure.
“There are two sides, right? This is a restaurant where African Americans didn’t eat. Today we want to view that as a problem: A restaurant owner who doesn’t serve African Americans,” Hyppolite says. “Then you look at what he was involved in. … He drew a line around his economic life so he could use those means he’d acquired to help other African Americans.”
With his son George, who became a prominent abolitionist figure and friend to Frederick Douglass, Downing likely helped hundreds of fugitives escape slavery.
He also helped fund schools for African American children, and helped found a committee devoted to offering resources to African Americans fighting fugitive slave laws. And he was at the forefront of the successful fight to desegregate New York’s trolley system – suing in 1838 after a trolley driver beat him publicly for refusing to deboard.
Downing’s case was thrown out by an all-white jury. But his case was followed with a legal victory by abolitionist Elizabeth Jennings in 1855, who also refused to leave her seat. A century before the bus boycotts, she became New York’s Rosa Parks.
Somewhat grudgingly, Downing also served as the de facto bank account for early civil rights groups like the Legal Rights Association – he often “grumbled” that the organization’s expenses were borne “by a few only,” wrote historian Kyle Volk in his book “Moral Minorities and the Making of American Democracy.”
Still, Downing proved again and again he was willing to use his clout on behalf of those who didn’t share his money or his status, according to Hyppolite.
“It shows that Thomas Downing was invested in freedom for all African Americans. ... He put his money and his organizing skills behind it as well,” she says.
When he died on April 10, 1866, he was one of the wealthiest citizens in New York, with $100,000 in the bank – equivalent to well over a million dollars today. And his real estate holdings were worth much more. His son George continued to work for the cause of civil rights while running oyster halls in both New York and Rhode Island.
The day Thomas Downing died was also the first day in his life with the legal protections of a United States citizen.
The Civil Rights Act of 1866 never bore out its promise. But at least in theory, it offered the full rights of United States citizens to all people born here, regardless of color.
Congress overrode Andrew Johnson’s vociferous veto, and on April 9, the day before Downing died, the bill became law.
Historical resources consulted
- “The Big Oyster: History on the Half Shell,” by Mark Kurlansky (Penguin 2006)
- “Moral Minorities and the Making of American Democracy,” by Kyle G. Volk (Oxford 2014)
- “Protest and Progress: New York’s First Black Episcopal Church Fights Racism,” by John H. Hewitt (Routledge 2003)
- “Discovering Black America: From the Age of Exploration to the Twenty-First Century,” by Linda Tarrant-Reid (Abrams 2018)
- “A Sketch of the Life and Times of Thomas Downing,” by George Downing. A.M. E. Church Review, April 1887
- “Safe Havens on the Freedom Line,” by Sandee Brawarsky, The New York Times, Jan. 19, 2001
- “Skeletons in the Closet: Uncovering the History of the Slaves of New York” by Lorraine B. Diehl, New York, October 5, 1992
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