How The Word Is Passed by Clint Smith features the NYC Slavery and Underground Railroad Walking Tour
Hi, this is Inside Out Tours! We’re so glad you’re here.
Inside Out Tours is a New York sightseeing company with a mission to inform, explore, and activate through storytelling. We especially love hidden histories–stories that our history books left out, or got all wrong. Each month, we’ll post a story here on this forum. We’re glad you’re here. We want to see you on one of our tours, and to hear your feedback in the comments on our social media.
Our first story for you is set at the corner of Pearl Street and Wall Street. Wait, what’s that boxy concrete building? Yes, it used to be a JP Morgan Bank, but that’s the most boring thing about it. Between 1825 and 1860, it was a swanky restaurant called Thomas Downing’s Oyster House.
Picture Manhattan’s fanciest and most elite guests, dining beneath sparkly chandeliers, with intricate gold-leaf designs; they indulge in the world’s best oysters, fried, raw, or stewed, and they schmooze with the respected restaurateur Thomas Downing himself.
Thomas Downing was the son of freed slaves. He grew up shucking oysters with his family in Virginia. He moved to New York, where oysters were cheaper and more popular than $1 slices of pizza–Pearl Street got its name from…you guessed it…all the oysters.
Thomas Downing became the personal oyster supplier to Queen Victoria (she even gifted him a gold watch!), and other A-list clients, while running a booming business for 35 years. While Thomas tended to his guests in the dining room, his son George was downstairs hiding the fugitive slaves in the cabinets and cellars. For all the years that this building was a restaurant, it was also a “station” on the Underground Railroad.
We might’ve learned in our history classes that New York abolished slavery in 1827. But for decades after slavery legally ended in New York, local government, big business, and financial institutions relied on the buying and selling of human beings long after 1827.
The labor performed by enslaved people on southern cotton plantations made New York the financial capital of the world, with cotton as the country’s leading export for over 100 years. Even when slavery was abolished, it wasn’t over, it only changed form, and even in “free” cities like New York, formerly enslaved people still faced extreme danger.
There were bounty hunters rampant in the streets, looking to kidnap escapees and return them to enslavement. So the Underground Railroad–a network of abolitionists and safe houses, like Thomas Downing’s Oyster House–was integral to thousands of people’s journeys to freedom.
And our history books posited the abolitionist as a benevolent white ally who heroically opposed slavery. This telling of the story fails to mention that the abolitionists at the heart of the movement were black homeowners, families, and business owners like Thomas Downing who risked their lives and freedoms for the cause. The Underground Railroad helped more than 100,000 people to freedom–Thomas Downing would’ve crossed paths with hundreds of them.
Inside Out Tours is re-thinking the way history is told, and the word is spreading. The New York Times called our Slavery and the Underground Railroad Walking Tour “devastating and amazingly empowering.” The entire New York chapter of Clint Smith’s bestselling book, How The Word Is Passed, focuses on our company’s tour. Smith recommends our tour and commends how we examine these stories and locations to gain new insights on the present.
Smith’s commentary on our tour, and how we tell the story of New York’s involvement in slavery and the Underground Railroad, is a humbling reminder of our role in these conversations and how Inside Out Tours activates and empowers visitors [and New Yorkers alike!]. We highly recommend this book which, of course, became an instant NY Times best-seller.
About Underground Railroad stations like Thomas Downing’s restaurant, and the danger/necessity from which they arose, Smith says: “in the nineteenth century Black people lived in fear that any moment a slave catcher could snatch them or their children up, regardless of status or social position. In the twenty-first century, Black people live in fear that at any moment police will throw them against a wall, or worse, regardless of whether there is any pretense…other than the color of their skin” [Smith, 225].
The Oyster House is just one example of a place that thousands of us pass by every day (it’s across the street from the New York Stock Exchange!) but seldom know its story–a story that may raise critical questions or change our perspectives. Inside Out Tours’ unique approach activates audiences through the hidden histories of people and places. If there’s a story about New York City’s hidden history–a place, a person, a moment in time–that you want to hear about, leave us a comment or a DM…we’re on it!