Jeffrey Green

Jeffrey is a historian
based south of London

125: Henry F. Downing, African American author in London 1895-1917

Henry Francis Downing  (1846–1928), diplomatist and author, was born in New York city, the son of Henry and Nancy Downing. He was the grandson of the free black Thomas Dorsey and a cousin of Hilary R. W. Johnson, the first Africa-born president of Liberia (1884–1892). In 1864 he enlisted in the Union navy and then spent three years in Liberia as an aide to Johnson before re-enlisting in the US navy and serving from 1872 to 1875, mainly in east African waters. He became a clerk at the Brooklyn navy yard and in 1876 married Isadora; they had two children. His political support for Grover Cleveland led to his appointment as American consul to Luanda in Portuguese Angola from October 1887 to November 1888. There he found local merchants unaware that America could supply goods. His salary was insufficient and he would not set up as a trader in his own right, so he resigned and returned to New York. He married as his second wife Margarita Doyle (of Irish descent, raised in Boston). From 1890 he ran the United States African News Company, which promoted leading black Americans.

In 1895 Downing and his wife moved to London. They lived in Chiswick, and later Kensington, and became friends of the London-born composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (they met through a common link with Paul L. Dunbar, whose negro dialect poems were promoted in London in 1897). In 1900 Coleridge-Taylor and Downing were involved in the Pan-African Conference and its committee. Downing’s Liberian associations led him to invest in May French Sheldon’s cotton-growing company there, and they both lost money (Mrs Sheldon, a friend of the explorer Henry Stanley, had visited east Africa). Downing was well placed in London to indulge in other African ventures and he associated with Sir Harry Johnston, the retired colonial governor who was linked with the Liberian Rubber Corporation and the dubious Liberian Development Company. At that time Booker T. Washington wrote to Liberia’s vice-president warning that ‘this man Downing is a deadly enemy to Liberia’ who was thought to be responsible for reports that defamed Liberia and that ‘he would not hesitate, in my opinion, to do anything that would denationalize Liberia’  (Washington Papers, Vol 9, p 631).

In the small black community of London Downing contributed words to songs by Montagu Ring (Amanda Ira Aldridge) and assisted Coleridge-Taylor, whose recital with Dunbar in June 1897 was held under the auspices of the American ambassador. He attended the Universal Races Congress in London in 1911 and wrote articles for Dusé Mohamed Ali’s African Times and Orient Review, founded in 1912. It is likely that items relating to England that appeared in the monthly Crisis of New York were submitted by Downing, who met the paper’s editor, W. E. B. Du Bois, in England in 1900 and in 1911. Downing also wrote eight plays, generally in four acts, all published by Francis Griffiths in London in 1913–14; no performance has been traced. Human Nature, or, The Traduced Wife, subtitled ‘An original English domestic drama’ (1913), was a rewritten Othello with no obvious racial distinction; Lord Eldred’s Other Daughter (1913) was a comedy that included an heiress of part-African descent leading a male to comment ‘To have the spending of an income such as her’s will be I’d marry a Hottentot’. Similarly, The Shuttlecock, or, Israel in Russia (1913), set in 1900 in Russia, has an African-American woman as a key protagonist. Voodoo (1914) is a historical drama set in Barbados, and A New Coon in Town: a Farcical Comedy Made in England (1914) featured a black American, Terminus Quoddy, in London. It was dedicated to May French Sheldon. Downing’s novel The American Cavalryman (1917), set in Liberia, was disliked by Ida Gibbs Hunt (who had lived in Madagascar when her husband was American consul there). Her review for the Journal of Negro History noted that Downing was ‘a colored man who evidently spent some years in Liberia’ but that the novel was ‘written from a white man’s point of view’; she suggested that the book would have been stronger had the history of Liberia been portrayed  (Journal of Negro History, 3/4, Oct 1918, pp 444–445).

The German bombing of London seems to have led the Downings to return to America in 1917, leaving behind three boxes of papers which have not been located. Perhaps in them were works mentioned in Lord Eldred’s Other Daughter: The Exiles, Melic Ric, The Statue and the Wasp, and Which Should She Have Saved. In New York, Downing associated with black theatre groups and wrote for Marcus Garvey’s Negro World and other black-edited newspapers. He wrote another play, The Racial Tangle (1920), and two books on Liberia (Liberia and Her People and A Short History of Liberia), both published in 1925. His efforts to promote films for his fellow black Americans led to at least one black production, Thirty Years Later (1928), which he seems to have written, and his American Cavalryman inspired the film A Daughter of the Congo (1930). He died at the Harlem Hospital on 19 February 1928. His widow continued to live in Harlem into the 1940s.

In the twenty-two years that Downing lived in England he not only kept Americans aware of British activities but also worked on projects to develop the economic and political status of Africans. A dark-skinned man with white hair, his presence encouraged others and his experience, despite Booker Washington’s concerns, was available to those with Africans’ best interests at heart, as well as to financiers and others who wished to profit from the continent. His plays may have been an indulgence, but for his friends and for historians they reveal the ambitions of a man whose career was remarkable.

THIS IS BASED ON JEFFREY GREEN’S ENTRY FOR DOWNING IN THE OXFORD DICTIONARY OF NATIONAL BIOGRAPHY.

Sources include: Dictionary of American Negro Biography, ed. R. W. Logan and M. R. Winston (1982), pp 188–189 · B. Roberts, ‘Lost theaters of African American internationalism: diplomacy and Henry Francis Downing in Luanda and London’, African American Review, 42/2 (2008), pp 269–286.