January 19, 2021

George Thomas Downing – Influential Restaurateur, Hotelier, Real Estate Mogul & Abolitionist of the 1800s

Once upon a time in Black Entrepreneur History was an African American man named George Thomas Downing who went on to become a restaurateur, hotelier, real estate mogul and abolitionist, along with writer and speaker.


Born on December 30, 1819 in New York City to Thomas and Harriet Downing, George had a great upbringing due to the success of his father’s oyster business and restaurant which was well known to and catered to the wealthy and successful businessmen, both nationally and internationally[1].

Because his father Thomas was a very successful business man, his thoughts on life and people were shaped early on. He learned to assert himself, stand up for what he believed in and be aggressive when it comes to success.

Being raised to value education, his parents sent him and his siblings to school, George going to school at African Free School and afterwards, continued his education at Hamilton College. However, it was while he was a boy that he and other African American friends decide that the fourth of July wasn’t a holiday they should celebrate until the day included the complete freedom of African Americans all over the country.

Slavery was still the tool of use for the country, making it only truly free for white people. This was unacceptable to both George T. Downing and his friends. He had become so involved in the fight for Black freedom that he joined the abolitionist movement, meeting inside his father’s restaurant with other abolitionists. Though still young, he had the respect of many men of prominence and he was taken very seriously by those already involved in the abolitionist movement.

George T. Downing’s Career as a Restaurateur, Hotelier and Real Estate Mogul

George T. Downing purchased Bellevue Avenue on September 17, 1840 from a property owner named Charles Sherman. On the property, he’d built up the newly named Downing Block, owning 164 feet on Bellevue Avenue and extending back of 118 feet with a five stall garage in the rear, along with 8 store, 8 apartments and an office[2]. He’d become a real estate mogul.

By 1842, he founded his own catering business and then in 1844 founded a second restaurant and became a hotelier when he opened his own hotel. Downing revitalized Bellevue Avenue with his businesses and real estate deals. It was Downing with 17 other businessmen who purchased Touro Park, but it was Downing who made the largest contribution to the purchase.

It was on November 24, 1841 that he married Serena Leanora de Grasse, the daughter of biracial (White and Native American) abolitionist George De Grass. They had six children, one of his daughters, Cordelia Downing, becoming wife of successful businessman Mark Rene DeMortie.

In 1849, on Downing Block, George T. Downing also opened The Yacht House, another restaurant with ice cream and water ices of all flavors. Sold there were also Chocolate Coffee and Pistachio Flavors, along with Plum Pudding Glaze. Downing opened the Yacht House in honor of the many yachts that visited Newport.[3]

Downing’s Life & Career in Washington D.C. as Head of Capitol City Cafe

He was placed in charge of the Capitol City Cafe in Washington D.C where he could meet and rub elbows with those who made the laws. He was so persuasive when he spoke of the conditions of Black people in the country that the legislatures listened. He was able to influence much when it came to the cause of Black people in America.

When offered a public position, he declined, preferring to remain in the background because he didn’t want to detract from his goal and the cause for all Black men and women. He’d been offered many high positions, but turned them all down as it would be a distraction.

It was at Capitol Hill at his home in D.C. that he held a fantastic and spectacular affair for the wedding of his daughter to businessman DeMortis. It was a well spoken of affair.[Read about it here]

George T. Downing as Writer & Speaker

In 1897, he was invited to read his prepared speech titled “The Negro Problem Fully Discussed” which, even at the age of 70, Downing was still passionate about his people. In the speech, Downing took a “hopeful view of the future of the colored man in the United States”[4].

Death

George Thomas Downing passed away at his Bellevue Avenue residence on July 21, 1903 of natural causes and old age. His death came as a shock because he wasn’t elderly behaving as many would see it at the time. He was very sharp, aware and full of life despite his health deteriorating in the months prior.

He was 83 years old.


Sources

[1]Newport Mercury Newport, Rhode Island Sat, Jul 25, 1903 · Page 1

[2]Newport Mercury (Newport, Rhode Island)17 Oct 1947, Fri Page 1

[3]Newport Daily News (Newport, Rhode Island) 25 Sep 1957, Wed Page 8

[4]Newport Daily News (Newport, Rhode Island) 11 Jun 1897, Fri Page 3

Photo: File:George_T_Downing.jpg, Vogt, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons