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Clarence G. Contee

Born about 1846 in New York City on Sullivan Street in Lower Manhattan, a son of Henry Downing and Nancy (Collins) Downing, Henry Francis Downing was the grandson of Thomas Downing, operator of an oyster-selling business and well-known free black. He was the nephew of George Thomas Downing, a well known politician in New York City and in Providence, Rhode Island, as well as a friend of abolitionist Frederick Douglass. The family maintained the oyster business and a refectory (dining hall) on Broad Street into the 1850s. Henry Downing received enough education to enable him to read and to write.

By the time the Civil War began in 1861, Downing was still in school. Eager to serve, he enlisted in the Union Navy at the Brooklyn Navy Yard on August 25, 1864, beginning his service on board the North Carolina He was ...

Article

Lawrence R. Rodgers

Born in New York City into a family of successful free African Americans who ran an oyster business, Henry Downing was the nephew of the esteemed politician George Thomas Downing. Henry Downing served two terms in the U.S. Navy (1864–1865 and 1872–1875). Following the Civil War, he traveled around the world, a journey punctuated by a three-year residence in Liberia, where his cousin Hilary Johnson later served as president (1884–1892). After returning to New York, he became politically active in the Democratic Party. For his strong support, President Cleveland appointed Downing consul to Loanda, Angola, a West African colony of Portugal, where he served less than a year before resigning in 1888. After returning to New York for several years, he emigrated to London in 1895 where he remained for twenty two years There he began a productive if undistinguished career as a writer ...

Article

Brian R. Roberts

diplomat, editor, and author, was born in Manhattan to Henry and Nancy (Collins) Downing. His family operated an oyster business and restaurant, and his uncle was George Thomas Downing, a Rhode Island businessman and civil rights leader. Nothing is known of Henry Downing's education before he entered the U.S. Navy at age eighteen.

Serving from 1864 through 1865 he worked on three vessels, the North Carolina, Pawtuxet, and Winooski. Afterward he traveled widely, spending three years in Liberia, where his cousin, Hilary Johnson, later became president (1884–1892). In Liberia, Downing worked as secretary to the Liberian secretary of state. Upon his return to New York he reenlisted in the navy, serving from 1872 to 1875 on the Hartford in the Pacific.

After his discharge Downing again returned to New York City and married Isadora (maiden name unknown) on 8 ...