Henry F. Downing

(c. 1841—1928)

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(1846–1928), sailor, novelist, playwright, and historian.

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. With at least six unpublished plays already written, he had five plays published (and likely performed) in 1913 alone. Melodramatic fare expressing minimal interest in race issues, these include The Arabian Lioness, or The Sacred Jar; Human Nature, or The Traduced Wife; Lord Eldred's Other Daughter; The Shuttlecock, or Israel in Russia; and Placing Paul's Play, coauthored with his second wife, Margarita Doyle. The reception of these plays remains unknown. Shortly before leaving London for New York, he published a novel, The American Cavalryman: A Liberian Romance (1917), whose plot follows a relationship founded on mistaken racial identity in order to glorify the possibilities of American blacks settling in Liberia. His final drama, The Racial Tangle (1920), which also centered on race-based romantic intrigue, was made into the silent film Thirty Years Later (1928) by Oscar Micheaux. Downing's last works were Liberia and Her People (1925) and A Short History of Liberia (n.d.), both of which were philosophically compatible with Marcus Garvey's back to Africa movement.

Clarence G. Contee Sr.,, “Downing, Henry F[rancis],” in DANB, eds. Rayford W. Logan andMichael R. Winston, 1982, pp. 188–189.Bernard Bell, The Afro-American Novel and Its Tradition, 1987, p. 78.Bernard L. Peterson, Jr., “Downing, Henry F. (Francis),” in Early Black American Playwrights and Dramatic Writers: A Biographic Directory and Catalog of Plays, Films, and Broadcasting Scripts, 1990, pp. 62–63.

— Lawrence R. Rodgers

Subjects: British History — Literature.

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