JEFFERSON CITY, Mo.
Lincoln University gained a glimpse into the life of one of its key founders with the donation of a series of pristine Civil War-era letters penned by Lt. Richard Baxter Foster.
The handwritten accounts written by Foster to his wife, Lucy, between 1863 and 1865 create a portrait of a determined abolitionist willing to ask great sacrifices of his family in pursuit of a just society and education for all.
Before he moved to Jefferson City to help launch an institute for free Blacks, Foster, a White soldier, volunteered for the 62nd Colored Infantry.
Written in an elegant hand, the letters obliquely reveal the deprivations of the Civil War and the sacrifices of a family. They also give insights into the thinking of the Black soldiers who agreed to donate what little income they had to found an educational institution.
In a ceremony on the historically Black university’s campus, the letters were donated recently by Foster’s descendants.
Fred Foster Fuller, a 72-year-old history buff from Lee’s Summit, noted his great-grandfather’s belief in higher education was inculcated early in life.
Education was so important in the family that Foster and six of his siblings earned degrees at Dartmouth College, and six were called into the ministry.
Two of Foster’s siblings later died in Civil War battles.
Born in New Hampshire in 1826, Foster had two wives during his life. The first died as a young mother. In 1855, he was married to Lucy Reed. All told, he had eight sons and two daughters. An adventurous, yet deeply religious man, his interests compelled him to live all over the Midwest.
As a young person, he taught in Illinois and Indiana, lived as a frontiersman, ran a sawmill and helped found Weeping Water, Neb.
But his sympathy for America’s slaves grew into action in 1856 when he made a trip with John Brown and Jim Lane (who later became a Union general) to Kansas, a state bitterly engaged in the anti-slavery struggle.
In August of that year, he wrote: “I was a participant in three glorious affairs which took place in the Territory last week … First let me say that war is a terrible thing. I have heard of it: I have now seen it. I have heard the balls whistling about my ears. I have heard the groans of the wounded and the dying … still, war is preferable to slavery … The men of Kansas have struck a noble blow. Kansas can never be made a slave State if the friends of freedom are true to their duty at this time. …”
He signed it, “Yours, fraternally, for freedom and justice.”
Less than a decade later, he was embroiled in the most terrible struggle ever waged on American soil. Of his 16 letters, 12 survive from 1865, the war’s last year.
If Foster suffered, he didn’t dwell on it.
On March 8, 1865, he wrote: “There are a good many books in the regiment and among others we have the last edition of Webster’s dictionary bought with regimental funds. I have been studying it nearly all day except when drilling and it makes my head ache to find so many things in it that I want to learn.”
In that same letter, he added: “I am also teaching a school of sergeants and corporals of the Company about one hour each day. I take great pleasure in that. The men are very much interested and thank me every night for the lesson. I never saw a body so eager to learn as our regiment now are.”
Fuller said his grandfather’s commitment to educating the Black troops was remarkable.
“Because in so many of the southern states, it was against the law to teach them to read and write,” he said. (Missouri had passed such a law in the 1840s).
Fuller said the most relevant information related Lincoln University’s beginning came in a March 30, 1865, letter. In it, his great-grandfather vows to keep educating the Black troops.
“I expect to continue in the work that I am now engaged in (for the elevation of the downtrodden Negro) as long as I live,” he said. “The war is breaking up the ice, laying the foundations all the work is to be done hereafter,” he said.
Foster tells his wife that 25 colored men of the regiment, a captain, a lieutenant, a third man and himself planned to build a mill and school house in Missouri.
But Foster’s arrival in Jefferson City was not propitious.
In an autobiography, his daughter, Grace, remembers the scene.
“Coming in a steamship around the bend,’ Father, Mother and their eight sons founded their school in Jefferson City. They could not rent a building, not even a church. Everyone was opposed to having a school for Negroes in their midst; the crazy Yankee could take his school somewhere else, or go jump in the river. There was no room at the inn and the school was born in a manger,” she wrote.
When the family was asked to leave Jefferson City, Foster posted notice he’d protect his premises with an armed guard.
Grace noted the family was “humiliated and harassed at every turn.”
“Mother had no friends. The children were stoned and not allowed to attend public schools. Father taught his sons,” she wrote.
The school got off to a rough start, too.
In an address to the state teachers’ association delivered in 1866, Foster talked about his problems: “The rain is pouring in torrents. As I approached the schoolhouse, I am stopped by a creek, the bridge over which was swept away.”
Once in the building, he discovered more of a swamp than a haven.
“I could throw a dog through the side in 20 places!” he exclaimed.
Only two pupils made the effort.
But in time the situation improved and eventually Foster was instructing 130 students at a time.
“The commitment of our great-grandfather to the cause becomes especially evident when we realize he left the comfort and security of his home in Iowa to take his wife and eight sons to Missouri to start Lincoln Institute,” said Fuller.
Fuller agreed his great-grandfather made some difficult decisions for the family. But those decisions were compelled by his idealism and desire to right injustice.
“It shows his strong faith,” said Fuller.
Foster’s career wasn’t finished at Lincoln Institute, where he stayed only six years.
His perpetually itchy feet compelled him to pursue a long career in the ministry.
The family moved to a rocky pioneer homestead in Osborne, Kan. Foster’s 30-year ministry endeared him to many of his followers.
Foster, then 74, died in 1901 in Okarche, Okla.
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