History

Remembering Marcus Foster: Role Model and Mentor to Philly’s Broken Schools

June 23, 2023 | by Keshler Thibert

I grew up in North Philadelphia not knowing the connection between Marcus Aurelius Foster and Simon Gratz High School, which was only two blocks away from my home. Throughout my youth, Foster was only the name given to Memorial Stadium at Roosevelt Boulevard and Germantown Avenue where I had to do laps at least twice a week.

Gratz High School was known as a rough school with bad kids who sought out fights. Over time I learned that Foster was once the school’s principal, but that was the extent of my knowledge. As I researched more about him, I noticed that every few years articles were published with the same headline: “City Schools Need a Marcus Foster.” After learning about him I understand why.

Foster’s transformative work at Gratz High School from 1966 to 1968 and his death during an attack by the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA) in 1973 are often the main points people remember about his life. The SLA soldiers mistakenly believed he supported mandatory student ID cards, police officers in schools, and other authoritative measures.

Marcus Foster was an education leader that gained national prominence through his progressive approach to mentoring students at Simon Gratz High School in North Philadelphia in the late 1960s. He would become the first African American superintendent of a large urban school district in Oakland, California. | Photo: Public Domain

However, the story of how his upbringing shaped his future decisions deserves equal attention. Born in Athens, Georgia on March 31, 1923, he was named after Marcus Aurelius, the Roman emperor from 161 AD to 180 AD. Foster went much of his life thinking his middle name was actually Albert until he saw his birth certificate towards the end of his life. His family, a single mother and four siblings, moved to South Philadelphia when he was only a few years old after his parents separated.

Forming part of the first Great Migration, many Black families went to Northern cities to find better opportunities, schools, and housing. Instead, they faced situations similar to what they had left behind down South. The Fosters moved into Marcus’ aunt and uncle’s South Philly rowhouse at 20th and Gerritt Streets and later moved into their own home on 18th and Latona Streets in a densely populated Black neighborhood. While attending Smith Elementary at 1900 Wharton Street, Barrett Junior High at 1599 Wharton Street, and South Philadelphia High School at 2101 S. Broad Street throughout the 1930s and 1940s, Foster lived a dual life. One was heavily influenced by his mother Alice who stressed the importance of education. The other began during his teenage years as a member of the South Philly gang, the Trojans. He danced at night clubs like The Strand at Broad and Bainbridge Streets, fought, drank, and wore a zoot suit into his college years.

Local civil rights leader Reverend Leon Sullivan spoke during a memorial in Philadelphia for Marcus Foster in 1973. The Symbionese Liberation Army murdered Foster on November 6, 1973 after a school board meeting in Oakland, California due to his supposed support of a plan to require student identification cards to keep drug dealers, gang members, and other non-students off of the district’s campuses. The far-left terrorist group believed that such a measure was “fascist.” | Photo courtesy of Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries

Graduating high school with honors, he moved on to Cheyney State Teachers College with a scholarship. During his time there, he was under the tutelage of Harvard graduate and school principal Leslie Pinckney Hill who advocated for his students and taught them his philosophy of uplifting the Black race because, for example, the majority of the classes at the integrated schools were taught by white teachers. In stark contrast, only two Black teachers were working at integrated schools and both worked at Sulzberger Junior High School in West Philadelphia.

By this point in the mid-1940s the second Great Migration was well underway and bringing more Black Southern families to Northern cities.

Foster graduated in 1947 and soon thereafter married Albertine “Abbe” Ramseur. He entered into a vastly different education system that pushed for a more liberal education. Moving to Princess Anne, Maryland for his first job posting, he returned to Philadelphia a year later with a position at all-Black E. M. Stanton Elementary School at 901 S. 17th Street and a daughter, Marsha.

Transforming the System from Within

Kids at Paul L. Dunbar Elementary received ties for a dress up campaign in 1961 during Marcus Foster’s time as principal of the school. Sidney Glaberson, at left, who had a haberdashery store at Broad Street and Columbia Avenue donated 500 ties to the effort. | Photo courtesy of Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries

Throughout the 1950s, Black families talked about their children having more and better opportunities to advance through higher education. To give some context, the Brown v. Board of Education decision that deemed racial segregation in pubic schools as unconstitutional was made in 1954. New studies echoed the famous book by Gunnar Myrdal published in 1944, An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy, which came to the conclusion that poverty created poverty. This problem, one of many, included growing segregation, violence in inner cities, lower employment for the undereducated, failing school systems, and the spread of gangs.

After E. M. Stanton Elementary, Foster’s next position was as a social studies curriculum advisor for 30 elementary schools. In 1958, he became an assistant principal at James Rhodes Elementary at 4901 Parrish Street. After this position, he tackled his first prominent role as the principal at Paul L. Dunbar Elementary at 1750 N. 12th Street.

What Foster took over was a school left behind due to a lack of funding, an economically declining neighborhood, and parents who faced their own educational issues. His past statements reflected this dire situation. “The school’s better days seemed to be in the past.” Teachers were “digging in like beavers, working harder and harder, but achieving less and less,” he once explained.

Foster and his staff took creative steps to raise academic expectations and goals, such as soliciting donations of clothing left behind at laundromats. Another step was displaying Black heroes throughout the school to improve student-teacher relations. Foster also brought in Black motivational speakers, taught Black history, and instilled a mindset in students that they can achieve great things if they remembered through his motto “I CAN and I must WORK.” Parents were encouraged to assist more at school and be more engaged with their children’s education at home.

Students and principal Marcus Foster begin cleaning out a storefront before renovations begin at Simon Gratz High School in 1967. | Photo courtesy of Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries

By 1963, Foster moved on to his next challenge at Octavius Catto Disciplinary School at 4125 Ludlow Street in West Philadelphia. Opposite to his experience at Dunbar Elementary, he now faced teachers who were apathetic and students who were expected to prepare for a career or college, but were academically lagging far behind. Most students attending Catto Disciplinary School had disciplinary issues, special needs, or involvement in gangs.

Change began with Foster’s expectations for teachers. Instead of treating their students as inmates, he demanded a culture of nurturing young minds. Students had to be approached more humanely as part of Foster’s Constructive School Discipline Plan. Relationships with staff and students slowly improved.

Was this new approach an overall success? No, because there were far too many students from broken homes who opted to quit school or saw no future for themselves. So Foster provided different options for those who wanted to move up. Parents were encouraged to assist counselors and psychiatrists who had expertise in issues related to children. Foster’s experiences at Dunbar Elementary and Catto Disciplinary School prepared him for his next challenge at Gratz High School.

Saving Simon Gratz High School

Three Simon Gratz High School students discuss current slang terms in 1967 while their teacher takes notes and another teacher listens in. | Photo courtesy of Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries

A March 8, 1966, article by the Philadelphia Tribune changed Foster’s trajectory. Only a few months earlier, he had accepted an office position at the School District of Philadelphia’s Center City location. The article detailed the experiences of a reporter who went undercover at Gratz High School. Their vivid descriptions of violence, hoodlums, poor academic performances, and crime prompted the Board of Education to bring Foster in after protests arose from the students.

Once again, he approached students, teachers, and parents on equal grounds. Standards were increased and each individual was expected to reach or surpass them. Foster realized that the poor academics at Gratz High School were caused by more than what was happening within the school buildings and included what was happening in homes and throughout local communities. In response, he launched the Beacon Motivation Program to inspire students and faculty to further educate parents.

Marcus Foster was the winner of the 1968 Philadelphia Award for his work at Gratz High School | Photo courtesy of Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries

There was no question about the well-deserved recognition of Foster’s achievements for which he won the 1969 Philadelphia award for outstanding civic leadership and service. His work included adapting the Black Power movement to the curriculum, battling with the Board of Education, resolving land and expansion issues, following national politics, and overcoming a lack of support, while still taking care of the day-to-day issues at Gratz High School.

Foster moved into a new position as the associate superintendent of community affairs. He worked directly on improving public schools, but faced declining budgets and disillusionment. In 1970, he moved on to his final position in the Oakland, California School District and became the first Black superintendent of a large school district in the United States.

An Education Leader’s Legacy

Marcus Foster, the first Black superintendent Oakland Public Schools, posing with students and teachers in the early 1970s. He would later be the victim of assassination by the Symbionese Liberation Army in 1973. | Photo courtesy of The Oakland Tribune Collection, Oakland Museum of California

Foster’s contributions to Philadelphia and its schools were significant. Despite long hours, he remained involved in a number of civic organizations. Upward Bound, a program to help impoverished students go to college, and the Educational Improvement Program are just two of the most impressive.

Similar to today, most people look at failing schools and academics as a reflection of the schools alone. However, Foster saw this failure as a reflection of the community and what it lacked to create better students. His views were cemented by The 1966 Equality of Educational Opportunity Report (aka the Coleman Report), which drew a connection between Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society liberalism preoccupied with racial inequality and the need to take care of multiple issues such as poverty and the family unit as keys to a better education.

Marcus Foster in front of Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary in Oakland, California during the school’s construction in 1970. His life, and work, was cut short three years later at age 50. | Photo courtesy of The Oakland Tribune Collection, Oakland Museum of California

Foster’s views are just as fiercely contested today as they were in 1966. With current politicalization of education issues nationally and the grossly underfunded state of Philadelphia’s public school system locally, the city’s schools could use another a Marcus Foster.



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About the Author

Keshler Thibert is a voracious reader, book collector, tour guide, and current member of the Association of Philadelphia Tour Guides. He was born and raised in Philadelphia, but has also lived in Atlanta, GA, Santiago de Chile, Madrid, Patras, Greece, and Adelaide, South Australia. Thibert has an interest in social sciences, language, and local history. Read more of his work on Substack.

2 Comments:

  1. Carolyn says:

    Bravo! Thank you for this piece on Dr. Marcus A.Foster. As a child growing up in the 1960’s I remember hearing stories of how great a man he was and his association with Simon Gratz HS here in Philadelphia, which I also attended in the late 1970’s. I remember a picture of him was on the wall at my elementary school at R.S. Walton in North Philly. If I remember correctly, his wife worked at Walton school. Reading this made me smile and brought back memories of my childhood and our proud connection with Marcus Foster in our city of Philadelphia. Thank you

  2. Calvin Morris says:

    I was familiar with the name Marcus Foster as my sister’s first job after graduating from Cheney State Teachers College was at Paul Dunbar elementary school. Like Marcus Foster, my sister took a holistic approach to education. When I was in high school, I remember helping her one Saturday when she took her class to the Penn Relays. We traveled to Franklin Fieldon public transportation. As a teacher, Claire S. Morris was truly dedicated.

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