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African American Heritage: The Businessman Who Set People Free

 How do the stories of buildings and people reveal secrets of the city’s history? How did New Yorkers get involved in the Underground Railroad? How is it possible that significant secrets to the history of New York hid for so long in plain sight?

When you stand at the corner of Broad and Wall Street, you’re overwhelmed with iconic buildings: Federal Hall on the north side, the New York Stock Exchange across the street, Trinity Church on the west side of Broadway. It’s a vibrant intersection, rich with history. You could spend the day considering who has stood right where you’re standing.

Where were they going?

What were they talking about?

What crises and triumphs might they have been facing?

Visitors seldom stand on that corner and consider Downing’s Oyster House, a swanky restaurant that catered to New York’s elite between 1825 and 1860. 

Guests at Downing’s Oyster House dined under crystal chandeliers, enjoying gold-leaf carvings, mirrored halls, and

 lush carpeting. Oysters were inexpensive and popular in New York at the time, but no one prepared oysters like Thomas Downing. A respected restaurateur, Downing served fried, stewed, and raw oysters to prominent, wealthy locals and tourists. 

Thomas Downing was the son of freed slaves. He was raised in Virginia and spent his childhood fishing, clamming, and raking oysters with his family. By 1820, Downing was the owner of the best-known oyster restaurant in the city, and a prominent abolitionist.

In his spare time, he campaigned for black suffrage rights, protested segregation on public transit and organized rallies against Fugitive Slave Laws. He helped to found one of the first schools in New York that would accept African-American students. He also co-founded the all-black United Anti-slavery Society of the City of New York. His efforts were relentless and his impact was monumental.

He worked constantly as both an activist and a restaurant owner. And while stockbrokers, lawyers, businessmen, politicians, and other prominent wealthy white men (and sometimes their wives) enjoyed oysters in the decadent dining room, Thomas’ son George carried out a secret operation in the cellars downstairs. Even after New York abolished slavery in 1827, slave catchers and bounty hunters roamed the streets looking for escapees, so New York was a very dangerous place for fugitive slaves. Fugitives–formerly enslaved people escaped to the north–hid below the Oyster House with George Downing’s help. Downing’s Oyster House was an acclaimed restaurant, and a stop on the Underground Railroad.

The Underground Railroad was not underground, nor a railroad. Rather, it was people like Thomas and George Downing who risked their lives, their businesses, and their freedom to provide support and safety to people who needed it. Stops on the Underground Railroad were safe places to rest, nourish, and regroup before continuing on the tiresome journey to freedom. This network of people and safe houses helped over 100,000 people to their freedom in the north and in Canada.

Communications about the Underground Railroad were done in secrecy, passed by word-of-mouth. Before long, fugitive slaves in New York knew they’d find safety at the most unlikely place: an upscale Wall Street restaurant. The Underground Railroad opposed the international, insidious system of slavery; the people involved had to be courageous, creative, and tenacious, as the Downings certainly were.

When Thomas Downing died in 1866, the New York Chamber of Commerce closed for the day. Downing did not live to see the triumph of his work, but we honor his legacy by telling his story.  

How did Thomas Downing use his platform to further the abolitionist cause? What does this dichotomy–his connections and friendships with New York’s most elite and New York’s most disenfranchised–suggest about the complex social fabric of the city’s history? How does your experience of the corner of Broad and Wall Street change knowing the story of his restaurant and what happened there?