Mar 24, 2021 | Charting the Past

Photo courtesy of photographs and prints division, Schomberg Center for Research in Black Culture, the New York Public Library, Astor, Lennox and Tilden Foundations via Mark Kurlansky’s “The Big Oyster”

By Sarah Malinowski

Did you know that in the 1800s oyster bars in New York City were located in the basements of buildings? They were called oyster cellars, refectories (a room for communal eating) or dives (presumably for diving down the stairs). These cellars were distinguished by the red lanterns or balloons hung above the cellar stairs. The only women welcome in these establishments were prostitutes.

Most oyster cellars were owned and operated by African Americans. The most famous of these proprietors was a man named Thomas Downing, who at the time of his death was one of the wealthiest men in New York City.

Thomas Downing (1791-1866) made oyster cellars respectable. He turned his into one of the fanciest eating establishments in New York City. He innovated by welcoming wives and even children when accompanied by their husbands and/or fathers, of course. He only served the best oysters from each day’s catch and his establishment was famous.  He was also a tireless abolitionist barred from citizenship until the Civil Rights Act of 1866 became law, the day before he died.

Thomas Downing was born in Chesapeake Bay oyster country, on Chincoteague Island, on the Eastern Shore of Virginia. His parents had been enslaved by a sea Captain who released them from slavery when he realized that owning slaves was counter to his Methodist Faith. The Captain, John Downing, set up a Methodist Meeting House and Thomas’ parents, who had adopted his name, became the paid caretakers of the property. This income made it possible for them to buy some land where they and their children provided for themselves. They made extra money by selling a variety of shoreline animals, including terrapin, clams and oysters. His hospitable parents welcomed their wealthy neighbors into their home. Their children were educated by the same tutor as their neighbors’ children, including Henry A. Wise who would become Governor of Virginia (1861-1865).

Thomas joined the army and followed it to Philadelphia at the end of the War of 1812. In Philadelphia, Thomas oystered, was a valet, met and married Rebecca West, and opened his first oyster joint. He moved on and by 1820 was registered as an oysterman in New York City; at this time, the majority of registered oystermen in New York Harbor were also of African descent.

Thomas began in New York by raking and tonging for oysters, bringing his catch in and selling it on the street. Oysters were so abundant and cheap that this was certainly not the road to riches. More money was made by turning your basement room into an oyster cellar where oysters were the loss-leader for booze. However, oyster cellars were also abundant and cheap. In order to separate from the others, Downing innovated in several ways.

The Thomas Downing Oyster House, opened in 1825 at 5 Broad Street, was located in the basement apartment, but it was decidedly upscale. This fantastic location was a few blocks away from Five Points, the African American neighborhood where most of the downtown oyster dives were located, and in the heart of the business district. It was decorated with damask curtains, gilded mirrors and a sparkling chandelier. He further innovated by welcoming wives – as long as they were accompanied by their husbands …

His place was exclusive and very popular. One of the reasons was his oysters were the best.

In the wee hours of the morning, Downing would row out to the oyster skiffs and pay a premium for the best oysters on each boat. Then he would meet these skiffs back at the dock where other purveyors were waiting to bid on the day’s oysters catch. Downing would place bids, not with the intention of buying but with the intention of raising the price to the benefit of the captains of the oyster skiffs, making him extremely popular with the skiff captains. He further clinched this market by welcoming these oyster captains at his oyster house.

By 1835, Downing expanded his business to the adjacent buildings (3 and 7 Broad Street) and diversified into a catering, take out and international mail order business. He shipped large quantities of live, fried and pickled oysters all over Europe. Queen Victoria was so taken with the oysters he shipped her that she sent him a gold chronometer watch, which became a treasured family heirloom. He also shipped vast quantities of fried and pickled oysters to the West Indies.

Thomas was also an ardent abolitionist. During his heyday, Thomas was simultaneously running his oyster empire and with the help of his family, one of the most important stops on the Underground Railway. His storage rooms had running salt water, bottles of wine, pickled oysters and fugitives, people escaping bondage on their way to Canada and freedom.

For decades, he supported the African Free School where his five children were educated. He was a vestryman at the Free African Church of St. Philip, located on Center Street in lower Manhattan. He was a founder of the all-Black Anti-Slavery Society of the City of New York. In 1837, when NY abolished slavery, he became a founding member of the Committee of Thirteen – an organization dedicated to protecting free people from being kidnapped to the South where they would be sold into the slavery system.

1838, he sued the New York trolley system after a driver beat him up when he refused to get off the trolley. This was the beginning of a 20 year fight to desegregate the trolleys. Downing’s case was thrown out by an all-white jury. But his case was followed with a legal victory by abolitionist Elizabeth Jennings in 1855, who also refused to leave her seat and the New York trolley system was desegregated. This happened 100 years before Rosa Parks helped to launch the Montgomery Bus boycott which led to the desegregation of all public transportation in 1956.

Thomas Downing died on April 10, 1866; one of the wealthiest men in New York City.

(Sarah Malinowski is a principal of the Fishers Island Oyster Farm, in Block Island Sound. To read a slightly longer version of this story, including the obituary published in The New York Times upon Thomas Downing’s death and sources used for this story, visit here.)


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