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Peter Lester was born in South Carolina in 1814, although his exact date of birth is unknown. He spent his childhood in Philadelphia and started his own family there. Lester was horrified at the treatment of free African Americans in Pennsylvania so in 1850 he, along with his five children and wife Nancy, moved to San Francisco, California. He had hoped that their move westward would lead them to a place of greater societal opportunity for African Americans. Unfortunately, that was not the case. Lester was appalled to find that California was no better than elsewhere when it came to how free Blacks were treated. He wanted to help the enslaved population so he began by inviting them into his home and educating as many of them as he could. His curriculum consisted of explaining rights and teaching anti-slavery songs.
In 1851, Lester teamed up with Mifflin Gibbs (1855 and 1856 Sacramento Convention delegate) to open a shoe store. Their store, Pioneer Boot and Shoe Emporium, was very lucrative and built the two of them a comfortable fortune. Yet, no matter how successful Lester became he was never distracted from his hatred of how Blacks in California were treated. At one point, during his time out West, Lester was physically assaulted by two white men who broke into his store and stole a pair of shoes. California state law forbade Blacks from testifying in a case that concerned white people so Lester was never able to receive justice for the crimes committed against him. This was not the only time Lester tried to fight the criminal justice system. In the late 1850s, Lester, along with his partner Gibbs and George W. Dennis, secured the services of a white legal team to fight for the freedom of Archy Lee in a widely publicized fugitive slave case. Lee had been brought to California to mine gold by a Mississippi slaveholder who sought to return Lee to slavery in the South. After a protracted legal battle, the support of antislavery activists, and a retrial, Lee finally won his freedom.
After several more years of struggle against California and US racial discrimination, watching the mistreatment of his fellow African Americans became insufferable for Lester. In 1858, with several hundred other Black migrants, he relocated to Victoria, Canada, where he passed away sometime after 1891.
Written by Sydney Hemmendinger. Taught by Sharla Fett, History 213 Occidental College, Spring 2016.