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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 ...