Thomas Downing, New York City pioneer and restaurant owner

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NYPL: psnypl_scg_527
Portrait Collection


Photographs and Prints Division, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations
Born into slavery in Virginia, Thomas Downing escaped north with his family and settled in New York City. He was a prominent leader in the black community, an early member of the African Society for Mutual Relief, a vestryman at St. Philip's, a promoter of education for black youth, and a fighter for black civil rights in the city.

In addition, Downing ran an oyster house on Broad Street. Because of its proximity to the Customs House, the port, banks, the Merchant exchange, and other important businesses, Downing counted some of New York’s most powerful men among his customers. It was said that he often passed messages back and forth between customers at different tables and that people then assumed that he wielded influence at the highest level of city government. As a result, scores of office seekers flocked to his restaurant.

When Downing died in 1866, hundreds of people—both black and white—attended his funeral.



“Thomas Downing, New York City pioneer and restaurant owner,” Black Gotham Archive, accessed March 21, 2018,