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