George T. Downing, abolitionist, businessman, and civil rights advocate, was born in New York City on December 30, 1819 into a prominent, well-to-do African-American family. His father Thomas Downing was a restauranteur, whose Oyster House was a gathering place for New York’s aristocracy and politicians. Under his father’s guidance, young George participated in the Underground Railroad and lobbied to gain equal suffrage for blacks. He also opened a branch of his father’s restaurant in Newport, Rhode Island, a town that had a blend of old-line families and a sizeable black community. Although he traveled extensively, lived in Providence and Boston before the Civil War, and managed the House of Representatives dining room in Washington, D.C., Newport remained his home.
Over the course of his productive life, Downing acquired wealth from his real estate, catering, and restaurant businesses, but his greatness rests with his unremitting advocacy of equality for black Americans. As an abolitionist he participated in several rescues of fugitive slaves, and in 1857 he began and financed a successful nine-year campaign to integrate the public schools of Newport, Providence, and Bristol. He helped to form the Colored National Labor Union in 1869 because of the racial intransigence of the all-white National Labor Union and he vigorously opposed the American colonization Society’s efforts to persuade free blacks to migrate to Liberia, believing American blacks should stay and fight for their freedom. In the 1880s he became disenchanted with the Republican party, and criticized what he called “the blind adhesion of the colored people to one party.” He failed, however, in three attempts to secure election as a Democrat to the Rhode Island General Assembly. Downing retired from business in the early 1880s, but continued his reform efforts until his death on July 21, 1903 at the age of eighty-three. At his passing, the Boston Globe called him “the foremost colored man in the country” and praised his efforts on behalf of liberty and equality for all Americans.