George Thomas Downing was a prominent businessman who followed in his father’s footsteps. Downing’s father owned the fabled “Downing’s Oyster House” in New York City, and was an active fighter for civil rights.
Downing was born in New York City to Thomas and Rebecca Downing. He was home-schooled during his teens and went on to attend Hamilton College in New York. After marrying Serena L. DeGrasse in 1841, the young couple made their home in New Port.
Downing opening his first restaurant in 1842, in New York. He then opened a branch of his father’s restaurant in Newport, Rhode Island in 1846. He also opened and operated a catering business in 1850. His restaurant was later destroyed in a fire and Downing built a commercial real estate block on the site. After the Civil War, Downing opened a restaurant in the House of Representatives in Washington, D.C., for twelve years. All the time, he continued to invest his money in real estate.
Throughout Downing’s life, he served as a political activist for racial justice. He along with his father were conductors on the Underground Railroad. He participated in national, regional, and local abolitionist endeavors. He was elected president of the New England Colored Citizens Convention in 1859.
Downing co-founded the Colored National Labor Union in 1869 and supported the Kansas Exodusters in 1879. He used his restaurant in the U.S. House of Representatives to promote the cause of equal rights for African Americans among his politician customers.