Oysters are often seen as a luxury food now, but throughout much of early American history they were so abundant that people from all classes regularly ate them. In coastal cities, you could have them on the street or in dingy bars for practically nothing. In late 1800s New York, a man named Thomas Downing built an empire out of an oyster bar. But here's the thing: he was a black man doing this during the era of slavery. Joanne Hyppolite, curator at the National Museum of African American History and Culture, shared Downing's story with Francis Lam. If their discussion makes you hungry for oysters, satisfy your craving with our recipe for Classic Creamy Oyster Stew.

Francis Lam: Can you tell us about Thomas Downing, who he was and how he made his fortune in oysters?

Joanne Hyppolite: Thomas Downing was a restaurateur, a caterer, and an abolitionist. He was many things, but he’s most well-known for his oyster restaurant called Thomas Downing’s Oyster House in New York City that was established during the 19th century.

FL: Where did Downing come from? How did he become an oysterman?

JH: Thomas Downing was an African-American man. His parents were enslaved people who were set free by their Virginia slave masters. He grew up a free man on Chincoteague Island, which is on the Eastern Shore of Virginia. His family owned property on the island, and their lifestyle revolved around clamming, digging, raking oysters, and fishing. That was his family’s everyday livelihood.

FL: How did he come to New York?

JH: He followed the troops north out of Virginia after the War of 1812 and spent about seven years in Philadelphia where he ran an oyster bar. So, he moved from raking oysters to working in an oyster bar. And then in 1819, he shows up in the New York City census listed as an oysterman. This was an occupation that many African-American men held in New York. He would have gone out on a boat or a schooner and helped harvest some of the oysters from the many beds in New York City’s waters and brought them back, and either sold them to the various marketplaces that then sold them to restaurants or would peddle them on the streets. We’re not exactly sure, but he was definitely harvesting them at that period of time.

Joanna Hyppolite Joanne Hyppolite Photo provided by Smithsonian Institution

FL: Do we know how he goes from there to having an extraordinarily successful restaurant?

JH: By the mid-1820s, we know he’s opened an oyster refectory – that’s what they’re called at that time – or an oyster cellar; they’re called cellars because you actually go down the stairs to enter these spaces. This is another occupation that a number of African-Americans had. He wasn’t the only African man who owned an oyster cellar, but he quickly distinguished himself for having a cellar like no other. He operated two properties that were adjoined to each other on Broad Street, and that gave him an expansive footprint. These other cellars were known as rough and tumble places with dim lights and a crowd. You were never sure if you were safe with your goods in these establishments. But Thomas Downing had a large dining area with curtains and fine carpet. He was known for having a chandelier in his space – this was considered fine dining. And his clientele were largely white men, men of means, merchants, bankers, Wall Street officials and newspapermen.

FL: His place became the watering hole for the elite, right? That was their spot.

JH: Yes, that’s where he really distinguished himself. He owned perhaps the best-known oyster restaurant in New York City – compared to any white or black person at that time – and it was the place to be for visiting dignitaries, travelers from different countries, merchants, and where men of means would bring their wives to eat.

FL: Is that unusual at that time?

JH: It is unusual because the place had to be respectable. That is what distinguished his establishment from all the other oyster cellars. You want to bring them to a place where a lady’s sensibilities are not going to be disturbed, right?

FL: This is interesting because we have to put ourselves in the mindset of the 1800s. Today if we think of an oyster restaurant, we automatically assume it to be nice. Oysters are expensive, they’re an elite food, but back then, oysters were an everyday food. They were an everyman food. And for him to lavish this kind of care, attention and luxury onto it was unique.

JH: Oysters were incredibly inexpensive back then. They were eaten by all classes. They were so plentiful that for about six cents, you could get a dozen. And when Thomas Downing enters this market, he finds a way to distinguish himself by making it a place where – as the upper class are looking for a sense of refinement and class in places where they dine – he finds his niche.

FL: And he was incredibly successful. He owned the place that the elite came to, and I heard that when he passed away, the New York City Chamber of Commerce came to his funeral. Is that true?

JH: Yes. They closed for the day for his funeral. He certainly gained a lot of social and political capital because of the clientele that he served. These men of means had connections throughout New York City. They seemed to have quite a bit of respect for him, and when Thomas Downing occasionally got into trouble, he could pull these connections that he had to back him up and support him.

For instance, there are stories of other African-American oystermen who owned more ordinary cellars. And currency during that period of time wasn’t always stable. There were fake levels of currencies, fake money, that people would use to pay for their food, and you could spot them right away. None of that seemed to happen at Thomas Downing’s oyster house. He knew that he could get the backup of his own clientele to support him if he was calling a particular currency of a customer into question, whereas other African-American men didn’t have that kind of support and often had to deal with the fact that they were being swindled.

FL: He seemed to be very important to different communities. Not only the elite community, but also to people fleeing enslavement. Is it correct that his place was a stop on the Underground Railroad?

JH: It was. On the one hand, here’s Thomas dining with this exclusive white clientele at his restaurant; it’s only for white diners. And on the other hand, he is this significant community figure and activist in the African-American community. He harbored refugees, slaves, and slaves on-the-run in the cellars.

After New York had abolished slavery in 1837, he was also well-known for helping found the Committee of Thirteen – an organization that was working to protect free people from being kidnapped and being sold back into the South, which we now know from the story of Solomon Northup in 12 Years a Slave.

FL: Let me pull this back a little bit. You’re a curator in the Cultural Expressions gallery of the museum, and Thomas Downing’s story isn’t the only place in your galleries where oysters appear. Why does that food hold prominence in the story of the African-American experience?

JH: Oysters help us interpret identity and historical circumstances. There are several circumstances where oysters show up throughout our 13 permanent exhibitions at the National Museum of African American History and Culture. One of the most poignant is in the Slavery and Freedom Exhibition. There are displays of oyster shells that were used by enslaved children to eat on Edisto Island, South Carolina – a waterside African-American community.

There’s a moment when encountering these oyster shells that you realize the visual disparity between enslaved people and free people – the fact that they would have to use discarded remnants of things as utensils, as opposed to knives and forks that people of better means would have access to.

Francis Lam
Francis Lam is the host of The Splendid Table. He is the former Eat columnist for The New York Times Magazine and is Vice President and Editor-in-Chief at Clarkson Potter. He graduated first in his class at the Culinary Institute of America and has written for numerous publications. Lam lives with his family in New York City.