Nancy Davis Lester

Mrs. Peter Lester

Portrait of Nancy Davis Lester. Image A-01627 courtesy of Royal BC Museum and Archives. 

Nancy Davis Lester was born in 1810 in New Jersey.[1] Her husband Peter Lester was a very successful entrepreneur. He made a lot of money from his boot making business and footware emporium. He also did a great deal of community work, gaining rights for people of color in California.

Together Nancy and Peter had a daughter, Sarah Lester. There was a huge controversy with the schooling of Nancy’s daughter because she was so light-skinned she could pass for white but others knew she was Black, especially because she came from a Black politically active family. Sarah Lester had already graduated from an all-white primary school, Spring Valley, in San Francisco. At the age of 15, she was the second best student in her high school class. Then, “in January 1858, The San Francisco Herald, a pro-slavery publication received an anonymous letter demanding the girl be expelled because of her race.”[2] Many of the white students in her class stood behind Lester’s daughter in support, however many other Black parents with very light skinned children wanted to be accepted into all-white schools as well. Consequently, the Educational Board released a statement saying that Black students were only allowed to go Black schools. Consequently, the board expelled Nancy and Peter Lester's daughter from the school, and the family moved to Victoria in British Columbia, Canada. Notably, the case involving Sarah Lester and her expulsion from the all-white school revealed that some of San Francisco's parents preferred to have their children attend better resourced white public schools that were often closer to home rather than enrolling their children in the segregated schools that some convention leaders attended on the east coast. In fact, educational access for their daughters as well as sons is an organizing effort that engaged convention leaders across states. The Shadds in Delaware, Alexander Clark in Iowa, the Downings in Rhode Island and William Cooper Nell in Boston joined many others to organize for educational access and desegregation. This goal drove them to send children away to school and to move their families to other states where equal opportunity in education was within their reach. In the aftermath of the Lester case, as many Black Californians prepared to leave for Canada, Nancy wrote a letter to a friend stating, “The excitement relative to the Fraser River gold mines prevails here to a considerable extent. Many colored persons have left for that region and many more are making preparations to go. Indeed it seems a Providential provision for us who are so oppressed.” [3] This quote is written on her grave. Nancy Davis Lester died in Victoria, British Columbia, in 1892.[4]


[1] Marvin Hilts, "Nancy Davis Lester (1810 - 1892) - Find A Grave Memorial," Find a Grave, 24 Aug. 2008,, accessed 5 April 2016.

[2] Sylvia Alden Roberts, Mining for Freedom: Black History Meets the California Gold Rush (Bloomington, IN: iUniverse, 2008), 32.

[3] Hilts, "Nancy Davis Lester (1810 - 1892) - Find A Grave Memorial."

[4] Hilts, "Nancy Davis Lester (1810 - 1892) - Find A Grave Memorial."

Written by Emma Cones. Edited by Gabrielle Foreman. Taught by Sharla Fett, History 213, Occidental College, Spring 2016.