George T. Downing (1819-1903) was an abolitionist and activist for African-American civil rights. From the 1830s until the end of slavery, Downing was active in the abolitionist movement and in the Underground Railroad, with his restaurant serving as a rest house. During the American Civil War, Downing helped recruit African American soldiers.
Downing’s grandparents were former slaves. He attended one of the first free African schools in New York City and went on to Hamilton College. In 1842, Downing started a catering business in Manhattan. His work brought him in touch with many of the elites of the city, including the Astors and Kennedys. In 1850, he moved to Providence, Rhode Island, continuing to work in Newport during the summer. In 1854 he built the Sea Girt Hotel, which was burnt to the ground on December 15, 1860, by an arsonist. He replaced the building with Downing Block, part of which he rented to the Government to serve as a Naval Academy hospital.
Downing was an important leader in abolitionism in New York. He was active in the organization of the American Anti-Slavery Society in 1833, and together with Frederick Douglass and Alexander Crumell. Downing was central in the movement for African American civil rights during the Civil War. He was also president of the Convention of Colored Citizens in Boston on August 1, 1859. He played a role in Reconstruction politics as well pushing for the support of blacks against violence and repression in the south.