George Thomas Downing (1819 - 1903)

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George Thomas Downing was born in 1819, in New York City.  His father was the well-known businessman, Thomas Downing.  Thomas Downing moved to New York, in the early 1800s, and eventually opened up what would become a very successful business—a restaurant called the Oyster House.  The restaurant was located at 5 Broad St. (right in the heart of New York’s merchant district, near what is today the New York Stock Exchange).  Thomas Downing taught his children to be active in the fight for freedom and George Downing followed in his father’s footsteps.   

George opened up a catering business in New York City, then he began to branch off into Rhode Island.  There he also opened up a catering business in Providence and, in the fall of 1854, he opened the luxury Sea Girt Hotel in Newport, RI.  

In the early 1850s, he was a part of a “Committee of Thirteen” in New York, which worked publicly, and behind the scenes, to raise support and money for those who had been captured under the Fugitive Slave Act. 

In 1857 he took up the charge, along with others, to desegregate the public school system in Rhode Island.  In Providence, RI for example, the city operated separate schools for African-American children and African-American students were not permitted to enroll in the high school at all.  Community organizers petitioned the General Assembly and Downing (as an important financier of the effort and as a businessman) was a leading part of the campaign.  He and others worked tirelessly to support specific political candidates to raise the issue in public debates and, in 1866, the state passed a law that prohibited discrimination on the basis of color in public schools.

In 1865 George Downing was invited to manage the Members’ Dining Room in the U.S. Capitol.  During his time in D.C., he made his presence felt.  He was instrumental in getting the ban on African Americans removed from the Senate gallery (which is the viewing area), he fought against the mistreatment of blacks on the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, and he actively supported the outlawing of discrimination in places of public accommodation in the nation’s capital (e.g., restaurants, hotels, etc.).

In 1859, he was elected President of the New England Convention of Colored Citizens.  Downing opened his remarks by saying that education, wealth and power were “most potent in society” and,

“There is another sense of power in community, which, though silent, has its weight—it should be most potent: that power is moral character.

Would it not be well to…fall upon some plan by which we may possess…(these powers)—rather than devote much of our time in a discussion as to the injustice of our fellow-countrymen in their relation to us?  Of this they know full well, and we too bitterly.” 

At one point in his life, he was asked if he would like to meet President Millard Fillmore.  Downing refused, saying that he could not shake the hand of the man who signed the Fugitive Slave Act.  

Reportedly, when the governor of Rhode Island commissioned him to be the captain of an all-colored company, he promptly returned the commission, with a letter, in protest of segregation in the militia.

When it came to politics, he broke with republicans of the day and refused to be committed to one party; he preferred to go with whomever was best suited, in his opinion, to advance the causes of equality and desegregation in his area.

Downing was a staunch opponent of colonization and once, in a meeting, when confronted by a bishop on the issue, about the need for blacks to colonize Africa, Downing said…

“I am self-respecting, I consider no man my peer, this is our home, we will stay here to Christianize you ministers.”

In his last public address he spoke of the activism of his younger days and of the lessons his father taught him—indicating that he owed everything that he had become to his father.

Downing also contributed to the purchase of what would become Touro Park in Newport, RI and he served on the task force to extend Bellevue Avenue to Bailey’s Beach.  George Downing was a dedicated citizen and a conscientious businessman.  He lived from 1819 to 1903.

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A street was named in his honor, near the site of his old luxury hotel.

© 2017 Danita Smith, Red and Black Ink, LLC.


Carroll, Charles.  Public Education in Rhode Island.    (Providence:  E. L. Freeman Company, 1918).  Pg. 157.

Legal Information Institute, Cornell University Law School.  “District of Columbia v. John R. Thompson Co., Inc.”  References the 1872 and 1873 laws making it illegal to discriminate against a person due to race in public establishments in Washington, D.C.

Mapping the African American Past.  “Downing’s Oyster House.”  Accessed May 2016.

“New England Colored Citizens’ Convention.”  The Liberator.  August 19, 1859.

New York Public Library Exhibitions.  “Lunch Hour, NYC.  Thomas Downing and Oysters.”  Accessed May 2016.

Office of the Clerk, U.S. House of Representatives.  “The Members’ Dining Room: George Downing.”  Accessed May 2016.

Washington, S. A. M. George Thomas Downing; sketch of his life and times.  (Newport:  The Milne Printery, 1910).


Washington, S. A. M. George Thomas Downing; sketch of his life and times.  (Newport:  The Milne Printery, 1910).

U.S. Geological Survey, TopoView.

Danita Smith