by Jonathan P Garland
(St. Louis, MO, United States)
Andrew Foster is my favorite historical figure from Deaf history. Not only was he intelligent, talented and dedicated to bringing deaf education to so many, he was also the first African American to graduate from Gallaudet with a Bachelor of Arts Degree.
There have been many people written about that played major roles in the history of sign language, but I’ve not learned much about contributions from deaf Black Americans. Foster has been referred to as the “Thomas H. Gallaudet” of Africa because he established (32) schools for the deaf in (13) different African countries.
Andrew Foster and his brother contracted spinal meningitis at 11 years old and became deaf. At that time, African Americans were only formally educated through the sixth grade. He attended several different schools for the deaf (and colored) until finally receiving his high school diploma through a correspondence course at the age of 26.
Because he was African American, Foster tried repeatedly to get into Gallaudet but was denied admittance due to his race. Never one to give up on something he set his mind to; he was finally accepted into Gallaudet with a full scholarship in 1951. Foster continued with his education after graduating from Gallaudet, earning two master degrees before focusing on his true life’s calling….missionary work.
With the help and encouragement of then Gallaudet President, Leonard Elstad, Foster established what is now known as the Christian Mission for the Deaf in Detroit (1956). He then went on speaking tours across the globe and to 25 different African countries in an effort to raise funds for schools for the deaf in Africa.
When Foster first arrived in Africa in 1957, there were (12) schools for the deaf in Northern Africa and in Apartheid South Africa. He set up his first school in Western Africa in Ghana of that same year and by 1972, he had established another (29) schools for the deaf all over Africa.
Dr. Andrew Foster taught students, trained teachers, educated the public about the needs of deaf Africans, and advised government officials about the need for more schools for the deaf. Gallaudet also educated many of Foster’s former African students. In 2004, Gallaudet University named an auditorium after him in honor of his role as the “Father of Deaf Education” in Africa. I believe that Andrew Foster deserves a prominent place in deaf history not just as a Black educator, but a great DEAF educator.