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Downing, George T.(1819–1903) - Entrepreneur, caterer, civil rights activist, Chronology

york rhode island business

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.

Chronology

1819

Born in New York City on December 30

1841

Marries Serena Leanora de Grasse

1842

Opens restaurant in New York City

1846

Opens oyster house in Newport, Rhode Island

1847

Becomes member of first board of trustees, New York Society for the Promotion of Colored Children

1850

Establishes catering business in Providence, Rhode Island

1854

Builds Sea Girt Hotel in Newport

1857

Begins fight to abolish Rhode island’s racially segregated public schools

1869

Helps organize the Colored National Labor Union

1873

Works successfully for passage of public accommodations law in Washington, D. C.

1903

Dies at home in Newport, Rhode Island on July 21

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