The son of an African-American coal miner, Foster was born in Alabama in 1925. Spinal meningitis deprived him of his hearing at age 10, in a time when educational opportunities in Alabama were limited for black children and more so for deaf children. Unable to go beyond sixth grade in local schools, Foster moved to Detroit to live with an aunt. There he earned a secondary-school diploma and gained a deep Christian faith that would spur his life's work. In the words of his son Tim, Foster "became infused with a passion for education."
Foster was accepted at Gallaudet College (now Gallaudet University), the premier educational institution for the deaf in the United States, and in 1954 became its first African-American graduate. During the next few years, while continuing his studies, he became increasingly certain his vocation was bringing educational opportunities to deaf Africans.
Discouraged by others at every turn, Foster gave up trying to work with existing missionary programs and decided to establish his own. He formed the Christian Mission for the Deaf and raised funds to support his vision, primarily through his home church in Detroit. In 1957, at the age of 31, lacking any contacts, he took a leap of courage and faith to fly to Africa, intent on establishing a school for the deaf.
The conditions he found in Africa might have driven anyone else to take the first flight home. Deafness was considered a curse, something to be hidden from others. According to Foster's son, some deaf children in Africa were kept at home and raised as servants, while others were cast out by their families and exposed to the elements to die. Government officials insisted to Foster that there were no deaf children in their countries.
Foster persevered and, with funds he had raised in the United States, established his first school for the deaf in Ghana. As children flocked to it, officials recognized the unmet need and set up a national education system for the deaf.
Encouraged by his success in Ghana, Foster traveled throughout Africa, setting up churches and schools for the deaf. During the next 30 years, shuttling between the United States for fundraising and Africa for building, he founded schools at the rate of one a year.
Foster stands behinds some of his students in Ghana in 1957.
LAYING A SOLID FOUNDATION FOR LIFE
In Foster's schools, children learned sign language, gained a solid education and acquired job skills, but Foster's vision was always broader. His son Tim, told America.gov, "The end goal has always been spiritual in focus," and Foster sought to give students the opportunity for spiritual as well as educational development.
But Foster was no empire builder. He had no intention of creating a personal network of institutions for the deaf, but instead sought to use his successes to spur local officials into establishing more schools. He also wanted schools he founded to become independent, spinning off from his Christian Mission for Deaf and becoming self-sufficient.
This strategy led to almost unimaginable success: There are now hundreds of schools for the deaf in Africa. Foster's mission now administers only three schools, and two of those are partially self-supporting.
Foster lost his life in December 1987 when, wishing to go to Kenya to further his work, he took the last available seat on a charter flight to Nairobi. The plane crashed shortly after take-off, killing all aboard.
Decades after his death, Foster's legacy continues to grow. Some of his students earned scholarships to travel to the United States and attend his alma mater, Gallaudet University. Schools for the deaf continue to blossom throughout Africa, often administered by his former students, and thousands of deaf children each year gain an education that would not have been possible without Foster's efforts. The Christian Mission for the Deaf continues to operate from its headquarters in Ibadan, Nigeria, and from its U.S. home in Texas, where Foster's wife, Marta, continued his work until 2009, when she was succeeded by his children.
At Gallaudet University, where Foster pioneered the path for African-American students and gained an honorary doctorate in 1970, an auditorium has been named in his honor and a scholarship established in his name.
In the words of a former student who spoke at Foster's memorial service: "It was his opinion that a deaf person living in Africa who cannot read or write was like a piece of gold lost in a remote mine. That piece of gold had to be taken out and polished" in order to reflect its true value.
The work started by Foster to mine that gold continues, enriching the lives of both the deaf and the hearing throughout Africa and in the United States.