ndrew Foster was born in 1925 in Ensley, Alabama where racism was at it’s strongest. His father was a coal miner and the family had very little economic opportunity. When he was 11 years old, Andrew and his brother both contracted Spinal Meningitis and became Deaf. The family did what they could to send the boys to the Alabama School for Colored Deaf in Talladega, but their education wasn’t very good. When Andrew was 16, the family moved into his Aunt’s house so the boys could get a better education. Andrew finished high school at the Michigan School for the Deaf.
The family was deeply religious and attended church services every Sunday. It was in Sunday School that Andrew realized his true calling. A missionary from Jamaica came to the school one weekend and gave a talk about his work in Africa. Andrew was extremely interested in the man’s experiences and felt that it was his calling in life to become a missionary in Africa too. If he was to succeed, Andrew also knew he would need a lot of education. He wrote to Gallaudet College and they accepted him on a full scholarship. He was the first black student to ever have been accepted at Gallaudet; four years later he became the first black, deaf graduate of Gallaudet in 1954. He then went on to accieve two Master’s degrees.
Then came the hard part. Andrew visited every mission he could think of, but in spite of his thorough education they would not accept him as a missionary because of his race. Instead, Andrew finally started his own mission. He flew to Liberia for the first time in 1957. What he saw there was extremely upsetting. The other missionaries he was in contact with told him that deaf people didn’t exist in Africa at all, but eventually Andrew found them. Many people thought that deafness was a sign that a person was cursed, so parents were forced to hide their children. Deaf children who weren’t hidden were frequently left in the wilderness to be eaten by animals. There was absolutely no education available, and most Africans believed that the deaf were unable to be educated. The best a deaf person in Africa could hope for was to become a family’s servant, using rudimentary signs for basic communication. Andrew knew he had to do everything he could to change the fate of African deafs.
Andrew heard about a community in Ghana with a high rate of hereditary deafness, much like Martha’s Vineyard in the United States. Figuring that he could make an impact quickly in this community, he traveled to Ghana and used the regular school facilities to teach deaf students after hours. Within no time at all, he had 300 families from all over Africa requesting that he teach their children as well. The borrowed facilities were no longer enough. Andrew flew back to the United States to raise money for a permanent boarding school to be built. A year later, the first school for the deaf in Africa opened in Nigeria.
Andrew faithfully promoted his new schools everywhere he could. It was at the Third World Congress for the Deaf that he met the love of his life, a German deaf woman named Berta. She felt just as strongly about Andrew’s mission as he did. They were married in Nigeria in 1961, and worked together to establish more schools across Africa. In addition to the schools, they also established deaf Churches, Sunday Schools, Youth Camps, and Teacher Training facilities. The two also had five children, 4 boys and 1 girl.
Sadly, in 1975 Berta was diagnosed with terminal Cancer. Although their worst fears weren’t realized (she is still alive and well today), Berta felt that she could not keep up with their nomadic life in Africa any longer. She and the children moved back to the United States. Andrew still felt that he had not finished his work in Africa. He decided to split his time, spending half of the year in America with his family and the other half of the year in Africa establishing more schools and churches. In 1970, Gallaudet University honored Andrew with an Honorary Doctorate in Humane Letters.
In 1987, Andrew was on a small plane traveling between schools when the plane crashed in the hills of Rwanda. There were 11 people on board the flight and none of them survived; Andrew was 62 years old. As one of his students, Gabriel Adepoju, said, “Andrew Foster is to Africa what Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet is to the United States of America.” Andrew established 31 schools in over 17 African countries. The mission he started is still going strong, and his legacy lives on in the tens of thousands of deaf Africans who are now literate and living good lives thanks to his lifelong effort on their behalf.