Henry Francis Downing

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Henry Francis Downing (1846 – February 19, 1928)[1] was an African-American sailor, politician, dramatist and novelist. His cousin was Hilary R. W. Johnson, the first African-born president of Liberia (1884–92).[2]


Henry Downing was born in New York City the son of another Henry Downing and the grandson of a noted caterer and oyster seller Thomas Downing. Among Downing's uncles was noted caterer and abolitionist George T. Downing.

Downing joined the U.S. Navy in Brooklyn Navy Yard in 1864.[1] According to BlackPast.org, "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". [1] After the US Civil War, Downing started on a journey around the world, and reached Liberia, where he lived for three years.[1] On his return to the US in 1872 he again enlisted in the navy, serving until 1875.[1]

In 1887, Grover Cleveland appointed him consul to Luanda, Angola, but Downing resigned in 1888. In 1895, Downing traveled with his wife to London, where he remained for 22 years.[2] He was a participant in the First Pan-African Conference there in 1900.

While in London, Downing published several plays and a novel, The American Cavalryman: A Liberian Romance (1917).[3] As a playwright in London, Downing took inspiration from the dramatic legacy of Ira Frederick Aldridge[4] and became "probably the first person of African descent to have a play of his or her own written and published in Britain."[5]

Returning to the US in 1917, Downing lived in New York City during his final years. He died on February 19, 1928, at the Harlem hospital.[1]


Black filmmaker Oscar Micheaux based two films on Downing's literary work. Micheaux's Thirty Years Later (1928) is based on a story/novella by Downing, and the film A Daughter of the Congo (1930) is based on Downing's The American Cavalryman.