By Carol Vaughn —
Lexi Hubb’s goal in making a new podcast series called “The Bivalve Trail” is “to dig deep into history and uncover one of the greatest stories most people have never heard of” — the story of Thomas Downing.
Downing, born in 1791, was a free Black man from Chincoteague, the son of former slaves. His parents reportedly were freed after the slaveholder, whose surname was Downing, converted to Methodism.
After making his way north as an adult, Downing rose to wealth and influence as owner of a renowned oyster house in the financial district of New York City in the 1800s.
He made his fortune serving an elite White clientele at his establishment in an era of segregation.
He was affected by segregation himself, including a Rosa Parks-type episode in which he was challenged for boarding a trolley. Additionally, his establishment reportedly was a stop on the Underground Railroad, helping enslaved people escape to freedom.
Still, Downing became so well respected among the city’s power brokers that the New York City Chamber of Commerce shut down on the day of his funeral in April 1866.
“American history doesn’t involve a lot of African Americans. For decades, a lot of stories were just not being shared,” Hubb said, adding, “When I discovered Thomas Downing, I (said), ‘I need to share this guy’s story. People need to know about him; people need to celebrate him.’”
Hubb hopes the podcast will spark interest in Downing’s place in history — perhaps through a museum display or other ways to share his story more widely.
“Maybe, just maybe, he becomes as familiar to Chincoteague tourists as Marguerite Henry,” she said.
The four episodes of the podcast series — the name is the same as that of a trail in the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge — tell Downing’s story and also celebrate the oyster.
The first three episodes have been published, with a fourth in the works.
It also may be heard via Pandora, Spotify, and Apple Podcasts.
Hubb is artistic director of the Chincoteague Island Theatre Company, which is producing the podcast in an entirely volunteer effort. The series, which Hubb researched, wrote, and narrates, is a collaboration with Longtayle Studios, the Chincoteague Cultural Alliance, and the Museum of Chincoteague Island.
Hubb credited Chincoteague musician Bill Troxler for the superior sound quality of the podcast. “The music and the recording is all done by Bill Troxler,” Hubb said.
It’s a project that came to fruition during a period when traditional theater productions were not able to proceed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Everything just came to a complete, abrupt halt,” Hubb said, adding, “I had all this time on my hands that I never had before.”
It seemed like a good time to pursue making a podcast about Thomas, a person Hubb found fascinating.
Podcast listenership has increased significantly during the pandemic, according to insideradio.com
A survey in July found 41% of weekly podcast listeners reported spending more time listening to on-demand audio content since the pandemic began and there also were more new listeners tuning in.
Hubb became interested in Downing’s story nearly four years ago, after Dale Holston, a Chincoteague resident who often tested her knowledge about little-known tidbits of Chincoteague history, mentioned the man.
“Eventually, it got to the point where he ran out of things he knew the answers to,” Hubb said. She would then do research to try to find answers to Holston’s questions.
One day, Holston told her about a photograph he had seen on the internet of a nineteenth-century oyster crock with the name T. Downing and a New York City address imprinted on it.
In the description it mentioned Chincoteague.
“He had no idea who T. Downing was,” Hubb said.
Hubb did an online search and starting finding information about Downing, including his Eastern Shore origins.
She found some astonishing facts, including that he shipped pickled oysters to Queen Victoria and once catered a lavish welcome party for visiting British author Charles Dickens.
The podcast should provide some good entertainment and information for listeners about an Eastern Shoreman who lived an enthralling life.
The theater company plans to continue adding to “The Bivalve Trail” after the Downing episodes, with a radio play planned for later this winter.
“My goal is to keep it going,” Hubb said.
Look at the CCA website or the Chincoteague Island Theatre Company Facebook page, www.facebook.com/citheatreco, for updates.