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George Thomas Downing
George Thomas Downing 1819 - 1903
During his youth, George Downing and a group of his friends once took a stand against the Fourth of July. It was their feeling that since Blacks were not free, a celebration of Independence Day lacked real meaning for Black people.
George Downing was born in New York City on December 30, 1819. He was the oldest son of Thomas and Rebecca Downing. As a youngster, George and other Black children were attacked often. Whites threw stones and called them ugly names. So, many Black parents took their children to and from school. Unafraid, George went alone. He took a brave stand and organized a group of Black boys to defend themselves against attack.
Young Downing continued to show leadership as he grew older. At the age of 14, he started a study group to talk about Black problems. He worked in the Underground Railroad. Once, he also helped a runaway slave escape from a New York City jail.
Downing attended Hamilton College in the state of New York. In 1841, he married Serena DeGrasse, the daughter of a wealthy landowner. They had six children. As a businessman, Downing did many things. He built hotels and invested in real estate. He also became a caterer and once managed a restaurant in Congress. People of all races could eat there, and he treated everyone the same.
In 1854, police attacked a group of Black marchers and took their freedom banner. The march was protesting the Fugitive Slave Act. George became very angry and went after the policeman. He grabbed the banner from the policeman and returned it to the marchers. Everyone was shocked, but Blacks were very proud of Downing's bravery.
George had many friends. One important friend was Frederick Douglass. He and the great abolitionist were often together. Both men wanted the President to help former slaves in the South. This was after the Civil War.
For many years, Downing spoke out against segregated schools. He helped to change a law that said Blacks must own property before they could vote. He also helped to change the curfew law. This law stated that Blacks had to be in their homes by nine o'clock. Downing also spoke to the governor about equal treatment for Black soldiers.
Over the years, Downing's business interests took him to many cities. In 1888, he acquired a large amount of real estate in Rhode Island. He rented a portion of his land to the federal government for a Naval Academy hospital.
On July 21, 1903, George Thomas Downing died after a long illness. At the time, he lived in Newport, Rhode Island. Newspapers wrote about his years of fighting for the rights of Blacks and other Americans. George Thomas Downing worked hard to make the Fourth of July a meaningful holiday for everyone.
Excerpt from A Gift of Heritage Black Civil Rights Leaders.
This is only a summary of the life of George Downing.