Marcus Foster stands surrounded by students and teachers
"The Audacity to Believe," an exhibition about the life and career of former OUSD Superintendent Marcus Foster, second from left, will be at the African American Museum and Library from July 31 to Nov. 30. Credit: Marcus Foster Education Institute

For the next four months, the public will have the opportunity to take an in-depth look at the life of Marcus Foster, the former superintendent of Oakland Unified School District who was assassinated in 1973 outside of the district headquarters. 

The Marcus Foster Education Institute is putting on the exhibit, “The Audacity to Believe,” at Oakland’s African American Museum and Library as it celebrates the 50th anniversary of the institute and the 100th anniversary of Foster’s birth this year. 

The exhibit opens on July 31 and will feature aspects of Foster’s early life and upbringing, his career in Philadelphia public schools, and his legacy as the first Black superintendent of Oakland public schools before he was shot and killed by the Symbionese Liberation Army in 1973. 

Patanisha Williams, the curator for the exhibit, called it the most important project she’s ever worked on. A fourth generation Oaklander, Williams grew up attending Oakland public schools, and graduated from Oakland Technical High School in 1990, following in the footsteps of her father and grandfather. But it was her great aunt, who taught in Oakland schools during Foster’s tenure, who gave her inspiration for the exhibit.

“She said he had a high bar set and people would just rise to it. But at the same time, he would meet you where you were,” Williams told The Oaklandside. “A quote that I’m actually putting in the exhibition is from her, where she says ‘We knew we were on our way to excellence [with Foster].’”

Marcus Foster
Marcus Foster stands with 60 student teachers working for Oakland Unified School District in 1970. Williams’ great-aunt, Ann Johnson, stands several rows behind Foster. Credit: Patanisha Williams

The exhibit will feature news articles, photographs, and other documents from the museum’s archives, along with some of Foster’s personal items, like his doctoral graduation regalia, and his original gravestone marker. A recording of a speech Foster gave to OUSD teachers and staff in 1971 will also play during the exhibit.

Williams, who creates pop-up art spaces in Oakland through her Pata Ali Love Club, said she wanted to curate a healing space with the exhibit for people to mourn Foster’s death and be inspired by his life.

“How do I capture this larger-than-life human being? And how do I get people who did not know him to understand him?” Williams said. “He’s still very living to me.”

Arianna Morales, the institute’s director of improvement initiatives, said the organization chose “Back to the Future” as its theme for this year, to honor Foster’s legacy and return to some of the ideas he championed, especially those involving youth and community input. One of the institute’s programs, RESET, brings together young people to help brainstorm and implement solutions to community problems. This year, the RESET program involves youth from Oakland and Philadelphia, where Foster began his career.

“Dr. Foster was somebody who really believed that all young people had the ability to succeed,” Morales said. “He wasn’t someone who was interested in tokenizing the community and their voice, but really utilizing people’s voices to inform the changes that should happen in schools.”

Marcus Foster
Marcus Foster’s original gravestone marker will be on display at the exhibit. Credit: Patanisha Williams

On Aug. 3, the institute will host a youth showcase where students will present their ideas, followed by an opening reception for the exhibit at the African American Museum and Library, featuring a panel of local leaders including activist Oscar Wright, former East Oakland Youth Development Center CEO Regina Jackson, and Marcus Foster Education Institute board member Vance Lewis. Free tickets for the reception are available online.

This exhibit is just one of the ways the institute is celebrating Foster this year. Another Foster exhibit, focused more on his achievements with OUSD, will be at the History Room of the Oakland Public Library from Oct. 1 to Dec. 31, and on Oct. 28 the institute will hold a gala at the Scottish Rite Center. The institute will also be re-releasing Foster’s book, Making Schools Work, in the fall.

“There was this feeling we were on our way to excellence, having him at the helm of the Oakland Unified School District. So his loss created this huge vacuum, and since then, we’ve not seen the kind of justice or change that is really needed to support young people to succeed in Oakland schools,” Morales said. 

“One of the things that we really want in the reception and the exhibition overall is to provide a little bit of space both for mourning, but also for closure. We do think of it as a tribute to someone who was taken too soon.”

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.