Downing’s Oyster Restaurant
The latest addition to the national mall in Washington, DC is the National Museum of African American History and Culture.
It opened its doors on September 24, 2016 after thirteen years of planning. No tickets are available until early 2017, so the Washington Post has been running a series of articles on various people and artifacts contained therein.
One of my good friends, who lives in the DC area, called me the other day to tell me how amazed she was to see an article about Downing’s Restaurant. This New York oyster restaurant first appeared in my book The Abolitionist’s Secret, the second book in the Cotillion Ball Series. It was the Fitzpatrick family’s favorite place to celebrate major and minor events over the years and has appeared in several other books in the series as well.
So if even my best friend was unaware I had done my homework, and that I hadn’t pulled the name out of my imagination, I thought it was time I dug a little deeper into the men who owned Downing’s.
Thomas Downing was the son of freed slaves, and lived in New York City, where he began a catering business that evolved into a restaurant. He specialized in oysters, and could be seen daily rowing out to the fishermen and hand-picking the oysters which would show up on his restaurant tables each evening. His was a first-class operation, opening in the 1820s, and featured a plethora of oyster dishes, including poached turkey stuffed with oysters, a holiday favorite. His growing wealth and his vital role in ending slavery earned him a lauded status in New York City’s black community.
While his reputation as a restaurant owner grew over the years, what he did in private was what made him a natural candidate for inclusion in the National Museum of African American History. Along with his sons George and Peter, he provided a vital cog in the Underground Railroad prior to the Emancipation Proclamation. While the local wealthy and powerful enjoyed the food offered in the restaurant, Thomas’ son George directed slaves on the run to the basement of the restaurant, where they’d be safe from the bounty hunters, at least for the night. They helped runaway slaves get to Canada from 1825 to 1860.
George Downing was born in 1819 in New York City. Thomas made certain George got a good education, sending him to a private school and then the old Mulberry Street school. It was at Mulberry Street where he formed lasting relationships with Charles and Patrick Reasoner, Henry Highland Garnet, Alexander Crummell and James McCune Smith, all of whom became active in the abolitionist movement. His abolitionist activities began while he was still underage, when he smuggled a young black man from jail. George was arrested and later released after paying for the slave. George and his father both lobbied the New York legislature for equal suffrage, and through their ties to men of influence politically from their restaurant and catering activities, became active both above ground and underground.
In addition to opening his own restaurant, George managed the US House of Representatives’ dining room, which gave him unparalleled access to high-level politicians of the day. Once the Civil War ended, and the Underground Railroad was no longer needed, George worked on a variety of issues, most notably desegregation of the schools.
Here are a couple excerpts from The Abolitionist’s Secret, to show how Downing’s Restaurant and their basement activities were woven into the story line:
New York, April 1856
The hair on the back of Heather Fitzpatrick’s neck rose. She glanced around the opulent restaurant, trying to find the cause of her discomfort. Her eyes locked with those of a military officer sitting with two other men at a table across the room. A bolt of electricity ricocheted between them. Heather could not move for a moment, or break the contact. She finally forced her eyes away from him and placed the menu in front of her face.
“Whatever is the matter, dear?” Her mother asked. “Don’t tell me you are coming down with the same stomach upset that Jasmine has.”
“No, Mother, it’s nothing. I feel fine.” She placed a hand on her stomach, willing it to stop fluttering about.
Thomas Downing, a free man of color and the owner of the restaurant, came to their table. “Mr. and Mrs. Fitzpatrick, how nice to see you again. And young Miss Fitzpatrick.” He nodded in Heather’s direction.
Heather’s mother, Charlotte, glanced up from the menu. “Hello, Thomas. We’re here tonight to sample some of your exquisite oysters.”
“Best in the city. You know, I row out every morning to the fishermen in the harbor and pick through their catch to find the finest oysters from the bay for my customers.” Thomas smiled, and white teeth flashed in his dark face. A bottle of chilled champagne sat in a bucket of ice. Thomas opened it with a flourish and filled the three glasses at the table with the bubbly pinkish liquid.
“The table setting is just lovely, Thomas,” Charlotte said. sliding off her long white gloves and touching the fresh flowers in the center of the table. “Your attention to detail is impeccable, as always.”
“Why, thank you, Mrs. Fitzpatrick. That’s a mighty fine compliment, coming from you. Now, may I start you off with your usual appetizer?”
Heather’s father, George Fitzpatrick, answered, “I see no reason to break with tradition, Thomas.”
As Thomas departed to see to their appetizers, Heather said, “I love coming here. You know, my friend Mary Rose told me her family would not dream of coming to any restaurant owned by a Negro, regardless of the quality of the food.”
“Fortunately, we’re a bit more enlightened than that,” her father replied quietly. “We’ve known Thomas, and his son George, for a long time now, and we know the good they do for the cause. If, by us patronizing their restaurant, it enables them to help one more person, we are happy to come here.”
Charlotte turned her attention to Heather and George. “It’s so nice to have this quiet evening before we begin the season in earnest. Shall we toast to a successful Cotillion?” She raised her champagne flute.
Looking over her shoulder before ducking into the dark alley, Heather followed her mother to the back of Downing’s Restaurant. They both carried bundles in their arms. Charlotte knocked on a door that led from the alley into the restaurant. Mounds of oyster shells were stacked nearby. Heather wrinkled her nose at the pungent smell of rotting seafood as they waited for admittance.
The door finally opened quietly and they hurried into the bright, noisy kitchen. Without a word, they were led to the downstairs rooms, which housed the offices of the restaurant staff. When Charlotte cleared her throat, Thomas Downing looked up from his desk. His face registered surprise as he smiled at them.
“Ah, Mrs. Fitzpatrick, Miss Fitzpatrick, how nice to see you again.”
“We wanted to bring you some clothes we no longer need. Perhaps you can find someone who might make use of them?”
They opened their bundles to show the array of housedresses, children’s clothing and underthings. Thomas looked at them appreciatively.
“Let me get my son, George. He will have more use for this than I will. I merely operate a restaurant. He runs the depot stop.”
Thomas hurried out of the office and down the hall. Quickly, he returned with George Downing, who glanced at the mound of clothing on the desk. “Thank you both. I do have someone in need of new clothing, so this will definitely help.”
Thomas moved his gaze from the clothing to the women. “May I extend another apology to you both for having your dinner cut short last night? Those slave mongers don’t seem to mind destroying my restaurant’s reputation by interrupting business to find their missing persons.”
“Oh, Thomas, that’s quite all right,” Charlotte responded. “We know it was out of your control. However, we did happen to find something as we left that I think would be of interest to you and George.”
Heather stood on her tiptoes and held on to George’s arm as she whispered to the men. “We found what the slave mongers were looking for, in the alley near your back door,”
George shut the door to the office before he turned to the women. Despite the relative privacy of his office, he still spoke in a whisper as he asked, “What did you do with her? And the babe?”
Charlotte replied, “We did the only logical thing we could think of, and took her home with us. She and the baby are staying in our carriage house until we can deliver them back to you.”
“You mustn’t bring her back here. The bounty hunters have gone on upstate, which is where she will head next, so she must stay put for a week or so, until her trail goes cold. And one person has stayed behind to watch for her here.”
“Whatever shall we do?” Heather asked.
Charlotte seemed to be lost in her own thoughts for a moment. Then, she brightened and turned to George Downing. “I have it!” Charlotte said as she grabbed Heather’s hands in her own. “We’ll employ her as a lady’s maid, to help Colleen get you and Jasmine ready for the Cotillion. Since there are two of you to dress, she’ll need the extra help.”
“Yes, that might work,” George whispered back. “I need to speak to her, though.”
“Yes, well or course. That’s why we’re here.” Charlotte grinned at the men. “Since we missed dinner last night, we would like to place an order to be delivered to the house. Could you arrange it?”
Thomas replied, “I will personally see to it, and I’ll have George deliver it to your home in an hour. It’s the least we can do, to make up for last evening.”
The Abolitionist’s Secret is Book Two in the Cotillion Ball Series, available on Amazon, Barnes & Noble and other outlets. You can read more about it here: https://www.amazon.com/Abolitionists-Secret-Book-Cotillion-Ball/dp/1440555907/ref=sr_1_11?ie=UTF8&qid=1475684862&sr=8-11&keywords=becky+lower