Bronx elected officials and advocates this week remembered Rev. Wendell Foster — the first black city elected official in the Bronx and a figure in the civil rights movement — as a mentor and pioneer who paved the way for the black community to ascend into politics.
Foster, elected to the City Council in 1977 died on Tuesday morning, according to Council Member Vanessa Gibson. He was 95.
“Rev. Wendell Foster was a pioneer, and someone who helped to make The Bronx and our nation a better place,” Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. said in a prepared statement. “As the first black elected representing the Bronx in the City Council, Rev. Foster was a historic figure in our borough and a dedicated public servant who inspired a whole generation of elected officials to serve their community.”
State Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie said the Bronx “lost a true champion.”
“[Foster] was a trailblazer, the first black elected representing the Bronx in the City Council,” Heastie said in a statement. “He was a mentor to many of today’s leaders.”
Gibson succeeded Foster’s daughter, Helen Diane Foster, with whom she is still close, she said. Helen held the same Council seat as her father.
“Rev. Wendell Foster was an icon in the Bronx not only because he was the first African-American elected to the City Council from the Bronx but really because he got elected at a time when [it was] really the dark days of the Bronx,” Gibson said, adding the Bronx is “such a different place and it’s a better place [because of] people like Wendell Foster.”
Referencing his work in the civil rights movement, she noted he was often recognized during Black History Month. “He was small in stature but very tall in the work that he did,” Gibson said.
Foster held the 16th District seat in the Council — which covers neighborhoods like Morrisania, Highbridge, Claremont and Concourse — from 1978 to 2001. He had previously run for Council twice before his election in 1977.
Foster was born in 1924 in a small segregated town in Alabama and arrived in New York at the age of 13 “with no parents and no money,” according to a 2009 interview with The New York Times.
Foster eventually became an ordained minister. He met his wife, Helen, in Bermuda and they had two children, Helen and Rebekah, he told the Times.
He moved to the Highbridge section of the Bronx as an adult, amid the tumultuous 1970s, when the phrase “the Bronx is burning” emerged.
“It was around this time that I realized there was little participation of blacks in the political system — at least they were not appointed or elected to office,” Foster told the Times. “So I began to try and organize the black community.”
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