The Museum of the City of New York celebrates and interprets the city, educating the public about its distinctive character, especially its heritage of diversity, opportunity, and perpetual transformation.
In the 1800s, New York City was rife with oysters. Oyster carts filled the streets the same way hot dog vendors do today. Oyster cellars were on every corner, marked by telltale lights covered in red fabric. There was even an establishment located in Union Square called the Ladies Oyster Bar where female patrons could enjoy a meal unaccompanied, something unheard of at the time.
Oysters were enjoyed by all classes of people, as they were abundant and inexpensive, yet still considered a delicacy. In the 1800s, Downing's Oyster House was considered the premier oyster cellar. Located on what is now 5 Broad Street in Lower Manhattan, the richest and most powerful people in the city came here to eat and make deals.
Downing's Oyster House was owned by freed slave Thomas Downing. He was a prominent civic leader and fighter for black civil rights in New York. Downing served only the best oysters available, and noted bankers, lawyers, politicians, and socialites flocked to the place. It was assumed that Downing carried messages between the power brokers of the day, and as such he was considered highly influential.
While Thomas served delicious oysters upstairs, his son George used the basement of the restaurant to help slaves escape to freedom. Downing's Oyster House was known as a safe house on the Underground Railroad. There, people seeking freedom from slavery could hide from bounty hunters roaming the streets of New York looking for them.
Thomas Downing certainly knew his oysters, but he was also remarkable in so many other ways. He was a leader in the abolitionist movement and founded the Anti-Slavery Society of the City of New York. He established the first schools in New York that accepted African-American students. While Downing's Oyster Bar may no longer be standing, his contributions to the city will last forever.
Cover photo via Wikimedia Commons