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Lowell Stories : Black History

Peter Pitts Lewis Jr. and Children


print of nineteenth century crowd

Le Dyorama, an engraving by Marlet of Daguerre’s Diorama, 1824. A large painted scene is partially backlit, allowing the translucent sections to glow, creating a realistic image.


Peter Pitts Lewis, Jr. was born June 3, 1807, in Barre, Massachusetts and died May 25, 1845, in Lowell, Massachusetts. He was the son of Peter Pitts Lewis Sr., and Minor Walker. Peter Lewis Jr. married Lephe Ingalls Lovejoy on August 4, 1830, in Lowell, Massachusetts.

Peter Jr., Lephia, and many other members of their extended family moved to Lowell shortly after the town was incorporated. The reasons were not entirely clear but business, family ties, anti-slavery activities, and equal education for their children were all possible factors.  As free blacks, the family likely wanted to live in a town which had support for the anti-slavery movement.

In August 1844, Robert Winter was in Lowell, Massachusetts, to present his chemical exhibition of Illuminated Chemical Dioramas “in the style of Daguerre” in the upper hall of the Middlesex Mechanics Association Building, Dutton Street. Here an incident occurred that generated much publicity.

On August 9, The Lowell Journal and Middlesex County Republican wrote: “we hope our people will all pay a visit to the exhibition of chemical pictures… we certainly think it is one of the best exhibitions we have ever seen in Lowell. It will be continued this evening and every evening this week.” The proprietor had offered to admit students and Sunday schools for ten cents each.

On August 13, The Lowell Courier reported:

“we very much regret to learn that the proprietor of the Chemical Paintings… refused to permit our colored citizens to go and witness the exhibition.”

Peter Lewis had taken his four children to see the exhibition with other school children, and had been refused admission.

“We deem it the duty of the press to protest your sort of exclusiveness, having its origin in a narrow-minded prejudice and to stand up manfully for the rights of the colored citizens when trampled upon in any way. The proprietor has very much mistaken the public sentiment of Lowell by adopting such a cause; - in our public schools, he will see the children of colored parents sitting side by side with those of white persons, a living evidence of toleration and respect.”

The following day a letter to the editor from Robert Winter appeared, chastising the editor: “It appears evident to me that you are not thoroughly acquainted with the particulars of the case. Peter Lewis had been “very insolent… his application at the Hall on Wednesday evening the 7th, was, from his manner and language, a preconceived insult.” Winter goes on to mention that he had never and never will admit colored persons in his exhibition, as he has not “made arrangement for their accommodation.” That part of an audience is prejudicial against association with them, and “the last and strongest reason for not admitting them is that so doing would seriously injure his business in the Southern and other cities where such things are not tolerated, and there are few men, however philanthropic, but will look to self-interest in preference to the pleasures of others.”

Winter goes on to say that “the children of Mr. Lewis would not have been refused entrance if they had had the approval of the men who had engaged his exhibition, although Lewis did apply for permission, he was refused, so procured tickets and appeared at the door, by which time the Hall was too crowded to accommodate more people.”

Immediately below Winter’s letter a lengthy rebuttal appears, claiming that those who had engaged the exhibition had agreed to allow some of the Lewis’s children into the exhibition, which did have the space to accommodate them, and that the idea of a preconceived insult was unbelievable. It is implied that some of Winter’s remarks are the result of a long residence in “Southern cities”… “We regret that the admission of colored people to witness the exhibition should seriously injure the business in the Southern and other cities, perhaps the exclusion of them may injure it in the Northern and other cities.”

On August 15, The Middlesex Standard termed the behavior of the proprietors “scandalous and disgraceful:”…“we hereby warn abolitionists everywhere against patronizing them.”

Peter Pitts Lewis, Jr. died of consumption less than one year later on May 25.  He is buried in Cambridge. His wife Lephe and their children continued to live in Centerville. Their home was part of the underground railroad, where freedom seeker, Nathaniel Booth lived and operated a barbershop on the first floor of the Middlesex Mechanics Association Building, Dutton Street.

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