Henry Francis Downing was an author, playwright, consul and sailor. He was born in New York City in 1846, the son of Henry and Nancy Downing. His family maintained an oyster business that had been owned by his grandfather, Thomas Downing, a well known freeman. His uncle was famed New York businessman and civil rights leader, George Thomas Downing.
In 1864 Henry Downing enlisted in the Union Navy at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. He began his service on board the U.S.S. North Carolina and was transferred to the U.S.S. Pawtuxet in December of 1864. Navy records listed him as having deserted in 1865, though it was later revealed he left the ship to attend his stepfather’s funeral, and his mother had obtained his discharge so that he could assist her.
After the Civil War, Downing began a journey around the world. He reached Liberia where his cousin, Hilary Johnson, would later become president of Liberia from 1884 to 1892. Downing lived in Liberia for three years where he was a private secretary to the secretary of state.
Downing returned to the United States and in 1872, reenlisted in the Navy and served for three years. Most of his time was served on the U.S.S. Hartford which operated off the coast of East Africa. With considerable time spent in both West and East Africa, Downing was one of the African Americans most knowledgeable about the African continent and its politics.
Returning to New York in 1875, Downing became a messenger and clerk of the Brooklyn Navy Yard. In 1876 at the age of 33, he married a woman named Isadora. The couple had two children.
By the 1880s, Downing became involved in New York politics and was a supporter of the Democrats and New York Governor Grover Cleveland. When Cleveland was elected President in 1884, Downing was rewarded for his support by an appointment as U.S. counsel to Luanda, Angola. He served in this post from 1886 to 1887, leaving because he was unsuccessful in getting significant American trade with this African nation.
After his resignation Downing returned to New York. He remained committed to promoting the natural resources in West Africa and tried to encourage business in the region through his “Afro-American Advice Bureau.” Still, these attempts were unsuccessful as well.
In 1895 Downing moved to London with his new wife, Margarita Doyle, an Irish American from Boston. While in London he worked as a commercial agent for the Liberia government. By 1900 he was employed by New Cotton Fields, Ltd., a London firm that hoped to develop cotton cultivation in West Africa. He unsuccessfully attempted to enlist the support of Booker T. Washington, requesting recent Tuskegee graduates to assist the project.
Downing also became an advocate of Pan-Africanism and in 1900 he helped finance the first Pan-African Conference held in London. As a member of the Executive Committee of the Pan-African Association, he worked the West Indian attorney who organized the conference, Henry Sylvester Williams as well as W.E.B. DuBois. When DuBois began editing the Crisis, the official publication of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), Downing contributed some of the first articles on Africa. He also write for The Africa Times and Orient Review, a leading journal promoting the then emerging anti-colonial struggle in Africa.
In the last years of his life Downing published six plays for the London stage although none of them had racial themes. The plays generated a modest income for Downing and his family. In 1917, just before he left London, he published a novel entitled The American Cavalryman which was about life in Liberia. He returned to the United States and settled in Harlem where he tried to promote motion pictures for African American audiences. He also supported Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association. In 1925 at the age of 79, Downing wrote two brief histories, Liberia and Her People and A Short History of Liberia.
Henry Francis Downing died in Harlem Hospital on February 19, 1928.
Rayford Logan and Michael R. Winston, eds., Dictionary of American
Negro Biography (New York: W. W. Norton, 1982); Jeffrey Green, “Future
Research,” Black Music Research Journal, Vol. 21, No. 2 (Autumn, 2001).
University of Washington, Seattle