This post was written by Safari Richardson, an undergraduate research assistant at NC State.
In 19th century New York, oysters were extremely popular. They were a great food source for both working and upper class individuals, resulting in the oyster industry being one of the largest at the time. The stories of individuals tied to the oyster industry are not widely known, especially that of African-Americans. There are two stories worth honoring. One is the story of Thomas Downing, an African-American man well-renowned for his oyster house located in Manhattan. The other details Sandy Ground, one of the oldest free-black communities in the United States that also incorporates the oyster industry (which will be discussed in Part Two). While I could not find any evidence of a direct relationship between the two, both of them foster a narrative worth telling.
Thomas Downing was a free black man born to formerly enslaved, parents in the island village of Chincoteague, VA in January 1791 (Hewitt, 1993). Growing up, he learned how to fish and dig for clams and oysters on his family’s land. Downing left Virginia in 1812, and found his way to Philadelphia, where he met and married Rebecca West. (Hewitt, 1993). After seven years in Philadelphia, they both ended up settling in New York City, where they had five children, and where Downing would establish his famous Oyster House.
Since New York’s oyster industry was booming and he knew oysters like the back of his hand, Downing created a name for himself as an oysterman. At his place of residence, he personally harvested and sold oysters (Hewitt, 1993). After a while, Downing opened his first oyster house in 1825 in Manhattan. He offered customers, predominantly New York’s elite population, a wide variety of oysters, such as those on the half shell, large oysters, oak-roasted oysters, and many more varieties one couldn’t find at other oyster cellars (Hewitt, 1993). Quickly, Downing’s Oyster House became one of the most popular in New York, forcing him to expand his business by leasing the buildings adjacent to his original restaurant (Hewitt, 1993).
Downing’s success as a black entrepreneur was extraordinary. In addition to his oyster house, Downing also catered events. He provided oysters at the 1842 Boz Ball that celebrated Charles Dickens and at an event to recognize the extension of the Erie Railroad. He also frequently shipped oysters overseas; one of his international customers was Queen Victoria, who sent him a gold chronometer watch in return (Hewitt, 1993)!
Downing passed away on April 10, 1866. His death was mentioned in The New York Times and New York City’s Chamber of Commerce closed for a day to honor him, illustrating Downing’s huge impact on the city and state of New York (Hewitt, 1993).
Downing’s complex and fascinating life forms an amazing story. He went from selling hand-picked oysters out of his house to establishing a well-renowned oyster restaurant in New York, all while being an African-American. What Downing did was very rare for his time, and he was and should continue to be celebrated for his accomplishments and legacy.
Hewitt, John H. “Mr. Downing and His Oyster House: The Life and Good Works of an African-American Entrepreneur.” New York History 74, no. 3 (July 1, 1993): 229-52. February 23, 2013. https://search.proquest.com/docview/1297181976/fulltextPDF/8A4CAA32858342E2PQ/1?accountid=12725.