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Thomas Downing: Oysters and Civil Rights

By Daniel Levinson Wilk, Professor of American History at SUNY-Fashion Institute of Technology

The intertwined history of restaurants and civil rights goes back much further in U.S. history, maybe even to Black Sam Fraunces, who founded Fraunces Tavern in New York (it’s still there), waited on George Washington and his band of revolutionaries.

African American restaurateurs have a long history of fighting for freedom.  Just last year, Georgetown professor Marcia Chatelain published Franchise: The Golden Arches in Black America, a book that looks back on ways Black franchisers of McDonald’s pushed for civil and social equality.  The intertwined history of restaurants and civil rights goes back much further in U.S. history, maybe even to Black Sam Fraunces, who founded Fraunces Tavern in New York (it’s still there), waited on George Washington and his band of revolutionaries, and may have foiled an assassination plot against Washington’s life.

One of the most interesting civil rights restaurateurs in New York’s history is Thomas Downing.  In the decades before the Civil War, Downing owned and ran an oyster cellar that attracted the city’s elites.  In that time, oysters were plentiful—you could pluck them right out of the harbor—and oyster cellars lined the Bowery, the working-class entertainment district.  Oyster cellars were the McDonald’s of their era: fast, cheap, popular.  They tended to exclude most women, who could not afford the impropriety of walking up and down the cellar stairs; they feared their skirts might ride up to reveal an ankle.

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Just as Daniel Boulud introduced the $27 hamburger in 2001, Thomas Downing popularized the high-low oyster cellar.  He opened his place in the 1820s at the corner of Wall Street and Broad, by the current site of the New York Stock Exchange.  It was an unusual neighborhood for an oyster cellar, the décor was fancy (damask curtains, mirrors, a chandelier), and the food was gussied up (scalloped oysters, fish with oyster sauce, poached turkey stuffed with oysters).  The wealthy financiers, merchants, politicians, and journalists who lived and worked in the area began to frequent his establishment.  His fame grew, and eventually he received an endorsement from Queen Victoria for his pickled oysters.

Downing was a Black man who served a rich white clientele, supporting, at least implicitly, the growing conditions of racial segregation.  In his off hours, though, he fought for civil rights.  He was one of the wealthiest Black men in New York (by the 1850s, he was estimated to be worth $100,000; that’s about $3.5 million today), and used his wealth for political goals.  He donated liberally to civil rights organizations that fought slavery in the South, kidnapping of fugitive slaves (and, sometimes, free Blacks) in the North, and the growing specter of Jim Crow segregation laws that spread through New York and other northern states decades before the South adopted them.  He attended civil rights meetings, sometimes speaking from the podium.  Occasionally he catered events for civil rights organizations.  He successfully lobbied his son’s school to hire Black teachers.  In 1840, he was thrown off a streetcar and beaten for refusing to disembark because of the presence of two white women.  It almost happened again in 1855, but that time he fended off the conductor of a horse-drawn trolley with a brass key that the conductor might have mistaken for a knife.

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Did his rich white customers know about his political activism?  Probably some did, but they chose to ignore it.  In 1850, a white oysterman published an article calling him “a notorious abolitionist,” but it didn’t affect his business.  It’s not that his white patrons supported his political views—right up until the Civil War, white New Yorkers were mostly racists and largely supporters of slavery in the South.  But their desire for good oysters and the warm hospitality of Thomas Downing outweighed any scruples. Today, good food keeps bringing people of different political stripes together.  Hopefully that will always be the case.

 

1 Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Photographs and Prints Division, The New York Public Library. (1860). Thomas Downing, New York City pioneer and restaurant owner Retrieved from https://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/8692940a-ff1b-1f62-e040-e00a180661b3

2 The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Picture Collection, The New York Public Library. (1882). The Great Fire, December 16 and 17, 1835. Retrieved from https://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47e0-ce5b-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99

 


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