African American Studies
BRONX AFRICAN AMERICAN HISTORY PROJECT
INTERVIEWER: Mark Naison
INTERVIEWEE: Wendell Foster
SUMMARY BY: Patrick O’Donnell
Keywords: Segregation in the Deep South, racism in the South and North, Alabama, New Jersey, New York, Bermuda, AME church, blacks in World War II, civil rights movement, Malcolm X, Mt. Zion Church, race relations in Harlem
The Rev. Wendell Foster (b. 1924) is the pastor of Christ Church, and was the first African-American from the Bronx to be elected to the City Council. He was born in extreme poverty in Elba, Alabama. He never knew his father, who died shortly after he was born. At the time, Alabama was extremely segregated and was a very racist place. Foster recalls a number of indignities he suffered in his childhood, as well as a number of traumatic episodes in which he witnessed blacks being mistreated at the hands of whites. When he was still a young boy, he went to live with his older brother and his wife in Birmingham. He held a number of jobs in the black community in Birmingham, but the mistreatment of blacks was just as entrenched as it had been in Elba. After a brief stint in a reform school, Foster decided that he wanted to get out of Birmingham. With no plans or contacts up north, he took a bus to New York. A kind stranger invited the young Foster to stay at the YMCA in Harlem. In New York, Foster lied about his age and began taking classes at Miles College while simultaneously trying to complete a high school degree at Industrial High. After this, Foster realized that his mother’s brother was living in Jersey City. He decided to contact them, and they immediately took him in as one of their own.
When Foster was about 14 (although if the dates are to remain consistent, he must have been 17 or 18), he was required to enlist in the navy, as he had signed up for the draft at the age of 13, when he had no other plans. Since he had lied about his age, the government officials thought that he was almost 20 years old—because of the fact that doctors in the south usually refused to deliver black infants, Foster has no official birth certificate. He thus spent the next few years at various naval training facilities throughout the US, including Illinois, New Jersey, Michigan, and Hawaii.
He left the navy when the war ended in 1945. He then returned to Jersey City, where he worked nights at Western Electric and attended classes at Columbia University and Union College. In the early 50’s he started a career as an American Methodist Episcopal (AME) minister. He began doing missionary work overseas, and got involved politically in several interest groups (including Poles, Indians, and Israelis) lobbying for everything from independence to equal treatment in the workplace. He became president of the New Jersey NAACP, and met many of the major civil rights luminaries of the day, including Paul Robeson, Mary McLeod Bethune, and Malcolm X. Eventually the bishop which he answered to sent him to preach in Bermuda, which at the time had 11 AME churches. Foster ended up marrying the bishop’s daughter in 1956, and at the time of interview, the couple had recently celebrated their 48th anniversary. After the wedding, the bishop dispatched Foster back to New Jersey, and then to Springfield, MA. After two years in Springfield, Foster went to Harlem, where he formed a relationship with Malcolm X, who frequently spoke at the Mt. Zion AME.
After a few other moves to locations such as Niagara Falls, Foster settled in the Bronx in about 1967, where he remains today. While Foster does not mention anything about his political career in the transcript, the interview provides rich and fascinating background information that displays Foster’s tremendous commitments to religion, family, learning, and civil rights for all people seeking liberation.
Naison, Mark, "Foster, Wendell" (2004). Bronx African American History Project (BAAHP). 5.