marcus foster
Marcus Foster served as the superintendent of Oakland Unified School District from 1970 until his death in 1973. Credit: Courtesy Marcus Foster Education Institute

The Marcus Foster Education Institute, a local nonprofit, is kicking off a year of celebrations this Friday by honoring 100 Bay Area leaders past and present who have upheld the legacy of the organization’s namesake—the trailblazing educator who was the first Black superintendent of Oakland Unified School District.

Foster, who would have turned 100 on March 31, established the organization in 1973 as the Oakland Education Institute to raise money for new initiatives in Oakland schools. After his tragic and untimely death that same year, the institute was renamed in his honor. 

Friday’s celebration is meant to commend community changemakers who have followed in Foster’s footsteps, while also bringing attention to the leader whose tenure as superintendent was cut short by his assassination.

Honorees include OUSD Superintendent Kyla Johnson-Trammell, Rep. Barbara Lee, Fremont High School Principal Nidya Baez, chef Tanya Holland, Roots Health Center CEO Dr. Noha Aboelata, film director Ryan Coogler, Homies Empowerment co-founder Cesar Cruz, and Black Panther Party co-founder Bobby Seale. The celebration will also honor deceased leaders, like Ida Louise Jackson, OUSD’s first Black teacher, labor activist Cesar Chavez, basketball player Bill Russell, and Japanese civil rights activist Fred Korematsu.

“I look at this as an opportunity to talk to the community about Dr. Foster, to celebrate him, to bring his legacy back to the fore, to create a conversation, and to have fun,” said Alicia Dixon, the executive director of the Marcus Foster Education Institute.

Born in Athens, Georgia, Foster attended college in Pennsylvania and spent much of his career as an educator in the Philadelphia school system, where he served as a teacher, principal, and associate superintendent. In 1970, Foster was named superintendent in Oakland, becoming the first Black superintendent of a large urban district in the United States. His original contract was for four years and earned him $42,500 per year, according to an April 3, 1970 article in the Oakland Tribune. He spoke positively about integration and parent involvement in schools, and helped establish the district’s bilingual education program

Soon after he began working in Oakland, Foster introduced the “New Notions for Excellence” program, which laid the groundwork for the eventual institute, as a fund that offered grants to teachers and students with innovative ideas for their schools. 

“He was passionate about public school education,” said Marsha Foster, his daughter. “Every single waking moment was dedicated to children in public schools, teachers, and administrators on the front lines of public school education.”

On Nov. 6, 1973, as Foster was leaving a school board meeting with deputy superintendent Robert Blackburn, both men were shot. Blackburn survived, but Foster did not. He was 50 at the time. The Symbionese Liberation Army, a 1970s militant organization, took responsibility for the shooting in a letter sent to media outlets in the days after Foster’s death. The group said that Foster and Blackburn were targeted because of a plan to introduce identification cards for students. Nearly 3,000 people showed up to Foster’s funeral.

While the organization he founded still raises money for grants and scholarships for Oakland schools and students, its focus has expanded to include education initiatives. The institute recently began the Marcus Foster fellowship program, a partnership with the UC Berkeley School of Education, where college students work with Oakland public schools to improve educational outcomes. Fellows’ previous projects have included implementing mental health supports at Skyline High School and providing assistance for students dealing with homelessness at Castlemont High School.

In 2021, the Marcus Foster Education Institute in collaboration with Umoja Health and Roots Community Health Clinic established the Umoja Health workforce internship program for Oakland students in high school or college who are interested in pursuing careers in public health. Umoja Health was launched in 2020 to address COVID-19 in Black communities in Oakland and the Bay Area. In 2021, it was clear that COVID-19 messaging wasn’t reaching young people, said Dr. Kim Rhoads, who leads Umoja Health as the director of community engagement and is a professor at UCSF. That led to the creation of the internship program. 

“Can we show young people from deep East Oakland and other places around the Bay Area where folks don’t traditionally go into public health or medical school or nursing school or [science, technology, engineering, and math] fields and show them nontraditional ways to uplift the health and wellness of communities from which they come?” said Rhoads, who is also one of the 100 community leaders being honored by the institute. 

In 2020 and 2021, the interns mainly focused on addressing COVID through testing and vaccine sites, but this year their work will be broader, encompassing existing health disparities in cancer, cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, and diabetes rates. 

This year, the Marcus Foster Education Institute will also be celebrating its 50th anniversary, and has other actions lined up: The group is in talks with the Oakland Museum of California and the African American Museum and Library to host exhibits about Foster and his work. The organization also recently obtained the rights to Foster’s 1971 book, Making Schools Work, and plans to re-release it with a new forward penned by Foster’s daughter, who told The Oaklandside she wants to ensure that people don’t forget the legacy of her parents, including her mother Albertine, who was also a career educator.

“His original tombstone marker said he gave his life for the children of Oakland. He died being committed to what he started out to do in 1947 when he graduated from college,” she said. “He was faithful to the end.”

Correction: This story previously stated that Black Panther Party co-founder Bobby Seale was among the deceased honorees. He is alive.

Ashley McBride writes about education equity for The Oaklandside. Her work covers Oakland’s public district and charter schools. Before joining The Oaklandside in 2020, Ashley was a reporter for the San Antonio Express-News and the San Francisco Chronicle as a Hearst Journalism Fellow, and has held positions at the Poynter Institute and the Palm Beach Post. Ashley earned her master’s degree in journalism from Syracuse University.