African American Studies
Gertrude Foster, nee Seaton, was born on October 31, 1927 in Rome, NY. Her grandparents had immigrated to the US from the West Indies and married on US soil, so their descendents were American-born. Because her birth parents were frequently absent, she was raised in Brooklyn and the Bronx by black foster families throughout the Depression years. From 1940 on she lived in the South Bronx. Throughout her upbringing Gertrude had both positive and negative experiences with other races. Occasionally she was in the minority, and she had to deal with prejudice from Italian, Irish, and Polish Americans. However, she also attended relatively integrated schools, and she often did not have any problems with her white neighbors and classmates. As a teenager in high school, she worked at a Horn and Hardart self-service lunch counter in Manhattan. She worked long hours every day, and found it difficult to balance her job with her school work. As a result, she began working in the stockroom at Gimble’s, a downtown department store.
Although New York was not officially segregated during this period, Foster says that there was a more subtle kind of discrimination constantly at work. Blacks could not get jobs as salespersons or cashiers in retail, for instance, and they certainly were discouraged from owning their own businesses. When Foster would go shopping on Fifth Avenue, she would experience a kind of tacit discrimination in all her dealings with whites. Landlords would sometimes specify that they only allowed “worthy colored people” to rent their properties.
Gertrude finished high school in 1945 and then entered the Lincoln School for Nursing. During her time here Foster was ostracized by some of her lighter-skinned black co-workers, both on account of her appearance and the proper, precise way she talked. Her residency was at the adjacent Lincoln Hospital, which predominately housed white patients. It was here that she began to discern the racial differences among the various types of “white” people—blondes, Sicilians, Irish, Italian, etc. Foster’s first job as a nurse was at Morrisania hospital in the South Bronx, and she began taking classes in public health at NYU. In 1950 she became a member of St. Augustine’s Presbyterian Church because it had a good youth group. The congregation was led by the charismatic Reverend Hawkins. Hawkins, who came to the Bronx in 1938, was instrumental in setting up a black employment agency that counteracted the “Bronx slave market” culture in which blacks would wait on street corners for white laborers and families to employ them. He also worked to establish camps, parks, and outdoor facilities for inner city youth, was a source of counsel to working-class and upwardly-mobile black families of the time, and was involved in the early days of the Civil Rights movement. Gertrude also met her husband, James Foster, at St. Augustine’s. They were married on June 27, 1953. The marriage produced four children. Gertrude attended Martin Luther King, Jr.’s march on Washington.
Inspired by Rev. Hawkins and the Civil Rights movement, the Fosters worked to integrate fully the Castle Hill Beach Club in the Southeast Bronx in the early ‘60’s. They sent their children to public school initially and then moved them into private schools. In retrospect, Mrs. Foster notes that one of the things that ensured the collapse of the South Bronx and other areas (besides drugs) was the mass exodus of upwardly-mobile white and black families like her own. Nevertheless, she does not regret her work to promote integration, nor her decision to seek the best possible life for herself and her family.
Foster, Gertrude. February 13, 2007. Interview with the Bronx African American History Project. BAAHP Digital Archive at Fordham University.
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