Old Town Rock Hill, South Carolina
Honest and Fair Leader of
Peaceful School Desegregation
Sam R. Foster, Sr., was the first African American to be principal of a fully integrated public high school in South Carolina. During a 30-year career in public education, Foster accepted increasingly challenging assignments, leading multiple schools though difficult, potentially volatile times when the majority white population and an often-aggrieved minority population wrestled with how to dismantle a racially segregated system that had been in place for a century.
Born in Chester County, Foster was educated in segregated schools and graduated from all-black Finley High School in Chester. After graduating from Morris College in Sumter he was drafted into the U.S. Army. Upon his honorable discharge, Sam taught in Chester County. In 1958, he and his wife, Jestine, also a teacher, moved to Rock Hill. He taught and later became principal at both Fairfield and Sunset Park Elementary schools.
Foster was appointed Principal of Emmett Scott in 1968, with the unpopular assignment of overseeing the closing of the historic black high school. Initially, he turned down the opportunity. After receiving pressure to accept the position from his superiors, Foster became concerned about advancement within the district and agreed to accept the position. Two years later, Foster orchestrated the move of students from Emmett Scott to W.C. Sullivan, a desegregated junior/senior high school. He broke up fights between students of different races and fearlessly opposed gang activity at Sullivan. Sam also reacted to complaints by white students that some black classmates had been shaking them down. He took strong steps to make sure such activity ceased and developed a reputation for treating students fairly without regard to the color of their skin.
In 1971, he became the first principal of Northwestern High School, Rock Hill’s second public high school. During the transition, Foster resisted pressure from white parents and from his superiors in the Rock Hill School District who sought preferential treatment for their children. He also came under intense pressure from the parents of African American students who claimed he treated white students better than black students. Accompanied by Brother David Boone of the Oratory and an African American police officer, he defused multiple emotionally charged meetings with black clergymen and parents who accused him of treating black students unfairly.
During his tenure at Northwestern High School Principal, Foster and his family were subjected to anonymous threats. After vandals blew up his mailbox, he was advised by authorities to post no trespassing signs at his home.
At a time when African American teachers were cautioned not to join the NAACP, Sam not only joined the NAACP, but he also became a lifetime member.
In 1977, Foster left Northwestern to assume an administrative position at the District level. He was then elected to the State House of Representatives in 1980, where he served for 12 years. Sam was considered a key education supporter and was appointed a floor leader for the 1984 Education Improvement Act. The landmark law raised teacher salaries, increased support for the state’s poorest school districts and introduced numerous other improvements for South Carolina.
A quiet, humble man, Sam Foster purposefully avoided the limelight, believing that all students deserved the best education they were capable of achieving. He insisted that issues that threatened their learning should be handled immediately and decisively. Few people outside the school system appreciated how his strong and fair leadership helped Rock Hill schools avoid and minimize problems that occurred during integration of public schools elsewhere in South Carolina and other states.