It is documented that the first Black settlers arrived in British Columbia in April 1858, 24 years after the Abolition of Slavery Act, however, Black Canadian history dates back to the 1600s. Many immigrants would come from around the world to British Columbia, Canada, and prosper.
Peter Lester was among scores of African Americans who left California in the late 1850s to Victoria on Vancouver Island, British Columbia to seek better lives. He would become the first Black to sit as a juror in British Columbia but not without some people raising objections.
Born in South Carolina, Lester moved to Philadelphia when he was 21 and joined the anti-slavery cause and groups that were fighting for the freedom of the colored race. In 1850, Lester left Philadelphia with his wife Nancy and five children to San Francisco, California. There, he was shocked to find that California, which was thought to be free, was still allowing slavery.
So he started holding classes at his home for enslaved Blacks and other domestic workers, teaching them about their rights and anti-slavery songs. At the same time, he worked as a bootblack and boot maker to make ends meet. It was through this work that he met Mifflin W. Gibbs during the California gold rush period. The two started working together, becoming partners in the firm Lester & Gibbs. They opened a shoe store in 1851 — “Emporium for Fine Boots and Shoes, imported from Philadelphia, London and Paris.” The business flourished in both wholesale and retail, and the two made a lot of money.
Still, Lester was not a happy person because of the way the state of California was treating Black people. Segregation and discrimination were rife. To make matters worse, two White men assaulted Lester in his store with a cane and stole a pair of shoes but since courts did not allow testimony by African Americans, he was not able to press charges against them, as pointed out by BlackPast.
Then in 1858, the pro-slavery paper San Francisco Herald printed an anonymous letter demanding the removal of Sarah Lester, the 15-year-old daughter of Lester, from an all-white school. As people debated the issue, Lester removed his daughter from the school. Amid these problems, the state legislature also announced measures to ban any black immigration to California.
Not too long after, Lester and his family “participated in a mass exodus of African Americans to Victoria in Canada,” as stated by BlackPast. He lived there with his family until his death “sometime after 1891.”
Before that, he made history as the first Black to sit on a jury in the Vancouver Island colony.
BCBlackhistory.ca writes: “A brief article in the Colonist on February 18, 1860 reads as: ‘A negro on the Jury list’: The article state that Mr. Peter Lester, a Black grocer, was the first juror called in the Butts case. Butts objected to him at first, but Lester was allowed to take his seat with the jury.”
It would take more than 10 years before Blacks were formally added to jury lists. This occurred on November 26, 1872.
Not much else is known about Lester’s life in British Columbia apart from the fact that he is listed on the 1875 voter’s list as a resident of Vancouver Street where he lived with his wife. He also owned nine other properties.