The Fight for Black Mobility: Traveling to Mid-century Conventions

George T. Downing

Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Photographs and Prints Division, The New York Public Library. "George Thomas Downing, businessman and civil rights leader." New York Public Library Digital Collections.

Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Photographs and Prints Division, The New York Public Library. “George Thomas Downing, businessman and civil rights leader.” New York Public Library Digital Collections.

Born to a wealthy family in New York City, George T. Downing (1819-1903) established himself as a civil rights leader and entrepreneur. His father, Thomas Downing, built his fortune as an oyster caterer. George Downing inherited his father’s excellent entrepreneurship, continuing and expanding the business from New York to Washington D.C.1 Following the 1855 Colored National Convention, Downing shifted his focus from real estate and catering in Newport, Rhode Island, to the integration of schools throughout the state from 1857 to 1866. To protest the discriminatory educational system, “he dared to send his children to the local white school only to have them returned home;” he petitioned, held public meetings, and distributed pamphlets arguing strongly against segregated public schools.2 Downing took his cause wherever he went. In New York City, he was beaten after trying to get on an exclusively white railroad line. This did not discourage his tenacity; later on, he refused to get off a trolley after being threatened.

When Downing moved to Washington, D.C. after the Civil War, he made political connections by managing the House of Representatives’ restaurant. Downing became close with Massachusetts senator Charles Sumner, who is said to have urged Downing “Don’t let my Civil Rights bill fail” on his deathbed.3 Sumner and Downing were close, and through Sumner, Downing was able to engage with other politicians. In one of Sumner’s letters, he writes, “I put George T. Downing face to face with my excellent friend, the senator from Maine.”4 The Senator from Maine and Downing discussed Sumner’s bill and whether or not the Congress has the right to disregard the Constitution’s provision that citizens, regardless of race, are entitled to equal privileges and immunities. Downing, in Sumner’s words, interpreted the Constitution “liberally, justly, for the equal rights of his race; the Senator from Maine, on the other hand, surrender[ed] to the malignant interpretation which prevailed before the war and helped to precipitate the Rebellion.”5 Clearly, Sumner had the utmost respect for Downing. Although Downing did not hold a high office in Washington D.C, the depth of his influence over Sumner’s political decisions and his political network helped advance racial uplift.

At the 1855 Convention, George T. Downing was a major advocate for raising the standard of employment for Black youths. At the National Council leading up to the Convention, he found an alternative for building a vocational school. Assisted by other delegates that decried the financial inability to see the “Industrial School” to completion, Downing organized a committee dedicated to placing Black children interested in apprenticeships with tradesman. At this moment Downing was affirming the need for Black leaders to actively create opportunities for advancement while political progress remained stagnant. As a contributor to Frederick Douglass’ Paper, Downing spoke out against the colonization movement. His address at the 1859 New England Colored Citizens Convention placed the power in the hands of his fellow Blacks to reach the American ideals of freedom and the “fraternal unity of man.”6 In 1910, seven years after Downing’s death, S. A. M. Washington published Downing’s biography.

George Thomas Downing; Sketch of His Life and Times


Submitted by Tyran Gardner-Davis, Taught by Gabrielle Foreman, University of Delaware Spring 2013

Revised and Edited by Samantha de Vera, University of Delaware.


  1. Myra B. Young Armstead. “Lord, Please Don’t Take me in August”: African Americans in Newport and Saratoga Springs, 1870­–1930. (Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1999), 33.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Edward Augustus Horton. Noble Lives and Noble Deeds. (Boston: Unitarian Sunday School Society, 1893), 57. Link.
  4. John H. Hewitt. Protest and Progress: New York’s First Black Episcopal Church Fights Racism. (New York: Garland, 2000), 88.
  5. Ibid.
  6. “The Nation’s Capital. George T. Downing’s Letter. What Hon. Fredrick Douglass Thinks of it- Political.” Cleveland Gazette [Cleveland, Ohio], 24 Jan 1885, 1. Accessed February 27, 2013. America’s Historical Newspapers.