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*The birth of Thomas Downing is celebrated on this date in 1791. He was a free Black businessman and restaurant owner.
Thomas Downing was born to formerly enslaved, parents in the island village of Chincoteague, VA. 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. After seven years in Philadelphia, they both settled in New York City, where they had five children.
At this time, Downing would establish his Oyster House business. New York’s oyster industry was booming, and he knew oysters like the back of his hand. Downing created a culinary name for himself as an oysterman. At his place of residence, he harvested and sold oysters. In 1825, Downing opened his first oyster house 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.
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. Downing’s success as a Black entrepreneur led to an addition to his oyster house and 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!
Thomas 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.