George T. Downing

George T. Downing (1819–1903) Photograph, undated/tiles/non-collection/m/mdr_george_downing_ribhs.xml Olivia Rice Collection, Rhode Island Black Heritage Society George T. Downing (1819–1903) in an undated photograph from late in his life.
George Downing came to the Capitol a well-known restaurateur, with establishments in New York City and Newport, Rhode Island. As a second generation member of the northern black bourgeoisie, Downing had cordial relations with prominent white politicians and businessmen in New York and Rhode Island. In addition to serving as the elegant proprietor of luxury establishments, Downing also concentrated much energy into fighting against racism in his time, using his notoriety and respected position to work for causes of equality. According to his 1910 biography, his activism began at an early age. During his teenage years, he worked as an agent for the Underground Railroad, and was not long thereafter a correspondent of Frederick Douglass.

Downing later used his position in the Member’s Dining Room as a vehicle for furthering his cause of equality for African Americans, particularly the issue of equal protection under the law for all Americans. His biographer asserts that Mr. Downing was particularly close with Congressman Charles Sumner and exerted some influence upon his stance on racial equality. Mr. Downing was also politically active in his adopted home state of Rhode Island. Most notably, George Downing lobbied tirelessly to officially desegregate Rhode Island public schools, beginning in 1857, by which time he was well-established in Newport as the proprietor of the Sea Girt House luxury hotel along with a confectionary and catering business. He also pushed for the repeal of the state’s ban on interracial marriage, and racial discrimination in the reorganization of the Rhode Island militia.