Published September 20, 2023

Encyclopedia Virginia editor Patti Miller and Joanne Hyppolite of the National Museum of African American History and Culture discuss the remarkable life of culinary entrepreneur and activist Thomas Downing in this conversation recorded on September 20, 2023.

Downing was a culinary entrepreneur known as the “Oyster King of New York” who owned and operated Downing’s Oyster House, one of the most successful eating houses and catering companies in New York during the nineteenth century. Downing was born in 1791 on Chincoteague Island, on the Eastern Shore of Virginia. His parents had been enslaved by a major landowner in the area and freed prior to 1783. Growing up surrounded by the waters of the Chesapeake Bay familiarized Downing with harvesting seafood such as clams and oysters. Downing was actively involved in New York’s free Black community, including its struggle for equal rights and its many civic organizations. 

Vanessa Adkins, right, is apprenticing under her cousin Jessica Canaday Stewart learning the finer points of traditional Chickahominy dancing. Photos taken at the Fall Festival and Pow Wow in Charles City on Saturday, Sept. 22, 2012.

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