Remembering our founders: George T. Downing

George T. Downing (December 30, 1819 – July 21, 1903) was an abolitionist and activist for African-American civil rights. His father was a caterer and Oyster seller in Philadelphia andNew York City and George followed the same career path in New York, Newport, Rhode Island, and Washington, DC. From the 1830s until the end of slavery, Downing was active in the abolitionist movement and in theUnderground Railroad, with his restaurant serving as a rest house. During the American Civil War (1861-1865), Downing helped recruit African American soldiers. After the war he moved to Washington, DC where he ran the Refectory for the House of Representatives. He was a prominent member in the Colored Conventions Movement and worked to join the efforts of women’s rights and black rights. He became close to Charles Sumner and was with the legislator when he died. Late in his life he returned to Rhode Island where he continued to be a community leader and civil rights activist.

Early life

George Thomas Downing was born in New York on December 30, 1819 to Thomas Downing and Rebecca West. Thomas was born in 1791 in Chincoteague, Virginia, and Rebecca was born in Philadelphia. He was one of five children, the others being twins Thomas and Henry, Jane, and Peter William. Downing’s father’s parents were freed by his former owner, John Downign, who built the Downing Meeting House and made Thomas and Rebecca caretakers. Among the visitors to the house where many elite Virginia families, including the Whartons, the Wests, The Taylors, the Custis and the Wise families. His father was a playmate of Virginia Governor Thomas A. Wise, and accompanied Wise briefly during the War of 1812, where he served as a soldier, but settling in Philadelphia and then moving to New York. He established a business on 5 broad street and owned a number of houses on that block which became an important hotel for foreign visitors, including Charles Dickens and Lord MorpethDowning famously sent some American oysters to Queen Victoria, in recognition of which she sent a gold chronometer watch to Thomas in the care of Joseph Comstock.

The first school George attended was held by Charles Smith on Orange Street, and then at Mulberry Street School, also known as African Free School. Downing was known as a child for leading other black students to chase off whites who harassed them. He then attended Hamilton College. George’s father’s prominence gave him many unique experiences, and he met Lafayette when the patriot toured the states during Downing’s boyhood. When he was 14, Downing organized a literary society of his peers where many topics were discussed, including resolving to refrain from celebrating the Fourth of July as the holiday and the Declaration of Independence ought not be celebrated by blacks. Among his classmates involved in the society were Philip Bell, Alexander Crummell, James McCune Smith, and Henry Highland GarnetAlso as a youth, he began to work as an agent for theUnderground Railroad. Among his first works was to help “Little Henry”, a slave who was jailed in New York.

Downing was an important leader in abolitionism in New York. He was active in the organization of the American Anti-Slavery Society in 1833, and together with Frederick Douglass and Alexander Crumell, Downing was a noted opponent of the American Colonization Society in the 1830s and 1840s. An influential moment occurred in 1841 when he was beaten by agents of the Harlem Railroad for attempting to ride.In June 1850, Downing together with Frederick Douglass, Samuel Ward, Lewis Woodson, and others formed the American League of Colored Laborers as a union to organize former slaves working in New York City. He was also a member of the committee of thirteen which fought against the Fugitive Slave Law in 1850. His distaste for that bill was such that when he once met Millard Fillmore, he excused himself rather than shake the former president’s hand, as he did not wish to touch the hand which signed that bill. He was a member of the committee which greeted the arrival of Louis Kossuth to New York in 1851. In New York, Downing was one of the prime agents of the Underground Railroad, along with Isaac Hopper, Oliver Johnson, Charles B. Ray, David Ruggles, McCune Smith, James W. C. Pennington, and Henry Highland Garnet. Downing’s station was run out of his Oyster House Restaurant.

Downing was also active in Rhode Island and New England. While fugitive slave Anthony Burns was imprisoned in Boston in 1854, Downing took part in the protests against his return to slavery, meeting with Robert Morris to argue for Burns’ cause. Downing was a prime agent pushing the Rhode Island legislature to integrate public schools, first financing a campaign of protest starting in 1857 which was finally successful in 1866.

Civil War period

As the Civil War approached, Downing was central in the movement for African American civil rights. Downing was president of the Convention of Colored Citizens in Boston on August 1, 1859. In 1860, Downing with J. S. Martin helped organize a meeting to celebrate the first anniversary of the death of John Brown in Boston. The meeting was widely opposed by many in Boston, and the mayor attempted to disduade Martin and Downing from holding the meeting. A mob gathered at Tremont Temple, and they were forced to adjourn. The next day they met at Joy Street Church, protected by the Boston police and militia. The meeting was highly visible, with Brown’s son, John Brown, Jr., andWendell Phillips making speeches.

During the American Civil War (1861-1865), Downing was encouraged to help enroll African-Americans into the Union Army. He met with Massachusetts governor John Albion Andrew, and got from him written assurance that black troops would be treated with equality, upon which he took up the work.

In October 1864, Downing was a prominent delegate to the Syracuse Colored Convention. Over the previous decade, Downing had been a critic of nationalist-emigrantionists such as Martin Delaney and Henry Highland Garnet, and at the convention, this animosity came through. Frederick Douglass was chosen as president of the convention, and made some effort to keep the peace between factions which arose around Downing and Garnet.

Reconstruction era

February 6, 1869 illustration from Harper's Weekly: The National Colored Convention in Session at Washington, D.C.--Sketched by Theo. R. Davis
February 6, 1869 illustration from Harper’s Weekly: The National Colored Convention in Session at Washington, D.C.–Sketched by Theo. R. Davis

In the second annual meeting of theAmerican Equal Rights Association in 1867, Downing contrasted the issues of African American and women’s rights, asking whether those attending would be willing to support the vote for black men before women. While this tension doomed that organization,the issue remained one of interest to Downing. At the National Convention of Colored Men in Washington, DC in January 1869 where Downing was prominent in his support of women’s rights.

Downing had moved to Washington, DC at the war’s end and became intimate with many politicians, particularly Charles Sumner. Sumner quoted Downing in his argument for the Civil Rights Bill in 1872. Downing was at Sumner’s bedside with Sumner died in 1874. Downing and his family were also involved in integration of Washington, DC society, opening the Senate gallery to blacks and being the first blacks to occupy a box in a theater in the capital. With the help of Sumner, he worked to integrate the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad line between Washington and Baltimore.

Downing played a role in Reconstruction politics as well. With the help of Horace Greeley, he led a delegation which met with president Andrew Johnson to push for the support of blacks against violence and repression in the south. While organizing the delegation, he traveled throughout the South. On his way to New Orleans, he received a letter from the Ku Klux Klan which threatened his life. Downing helped gainEdward Bassett the appointment as Minister Resident and Consul General for the United States to Haiti, the first appointment of a black man to a position in the Diplomatic Corps.

In the late 1870s, Downing found himself on the opposite side of Frederick Douglass on an important issue. Together with John Mercer Langston and Richard T. Greener at meetings and conventions, Downing supported the cause of blacks migrating from the South to the North, while Douglass thought Exodusters should work to develop the area they were born.

Politically, Downing was Republican for much of his life, but became more independent during the candidacy for president of James Blaine, who he felt was soft on civil rights. He also supported a Democratic candidate for alderman of Newport and in exchange a black man was placed on the school committee. He also was active in removing laws against racial inter-marriage in Rhode Island.

Late in his life, he was given a commission as captain of a colored company of the Rhode Island militia, which Downing returned, protesting against the designation of the company as colored. The governor then resent the commission without the discriminating phrase. Also late in his life, Downing became an important benefactor to Newport. He was a large contributor to the purchase of the land which became Touro Park in Newport, making the second largest contribution after that of Judah Touro‘s estate. He also helped organize the politics behind the expansion of Newport’s Bellevue Avenue, and declined an offer to be collector for the port of Newport.

Our beloved brother actually  helped organize the Grand United Order of Odd Fellows and was Grand Master of the Order for some years. He was also involved in freemasonry and was a Royal Arch Mason.It is of the utmost importance that as brethren we continue to expound on the feats of our predecessors……

In the bond of Friendship Love and Truth

Bro.Page

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