George T. Downing (December 30, 1819 – July 21, 1903)

George T. Downing (December 30, 1819 – July 21, 1903) was born in New York City. His father Thomas was born in 1791 in Chincoteague, Virginia, to parents who had been freed from slavery when their master, John Downing, a prominent planter, converted to Methodism. The couple took his surname and were also Methodists.
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The local Methodist congregation named their meeting house in Oak Hill after Downing because of his acts. Downing hired Thomas’ parents to serve as caretakers at the meeting house, and provided a tutor for Thomas. Thomas grew up learning about refined tastes from guests hosted by John Downing at his own house, near the land his parents were given,
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George Downing was an abolitionist and activist for African-American civil rights while building a successful career as a restaurateur in New York City; Newport, Rhode Island; and Washington, DC. His father had been an oyster seller and caterer in Philadelphia and New York City, building a business that attracted wealthy white clients.
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From the 1830s until the end of slavery, Downing was active in the Underground Railroad, using his restaurant as a rest station for refugees on the move. For more than 10 years, he worked to integrate Rhode Island public schools. During the American Civil War (1861-1865), Downing helped recruit African-American soldiers.
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After the war Downing moved to Washington, DC, where for a dozen years he ran the restaurant for the House of Representatives. He was a prominent member in the Colored Conventions Movement and worked to join the efforts of women’s rights and black rights. He became close to senator Charles Sumner and was with the legislator when he died.
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He was known as a ‘gentleman of color’ with ‘the most elegant manners to be seen in the Capitol building’.
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History we never learn. Black people were never the hoodlums we see in the streets today.

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