For 12 years, from 1980 to 1992, Sam Foster went to work at the Statehouse.
Whenever the state representative for parts of Rock Hill and western York County would walk into that historic building, his narrow shoulders back, his head held high, and look up at the Confederate battle flag flying atop the Statehouse dome.
“It was right there on top of my head – all of our heads,” Foster, 82, recalled last week.
For decades, the Confederate flag has been used to remind Sam Foster that he is black and that whites were in charge.
That same flag was used in his youth in Chester to mean that the Ku Klux Klan was riding that night, and staying inside meant staying alive if you were black.
Despite seeing that Confederate flag throughout his eight decades, Foster knew that all whites were not racists – then or now. His mother, a teacher in segregated schools, did cleaning for a white family to make ends meet. That family was not prejudiced, he said. They made sure the Fosters had Christmas gifts. They were terrific, lovely people.
White kids and black kids played together in those days. Only adults and the government of South Carolina told them not to.
That flag was used to tell Sam Foster – as a child, a teen and an adult – that he had to wait for whites to be served before he could eat, or that a bank would not give him a $200 loan to pay for graduate school classes.
That same bank would later ask Foster to serve on its board of directors.
In 1970, the Confederate battle flag had been run up the flagpole and bannered across the front of Northwestern High School, where Foster was the first principal when the school opened with integration. Some would fly the flag and vandalize the school with graffiti that was hateful, then fly the flag as an exclamation point.
“One time they cut the rope with the flag up there trying to keep it up,” Foster said. “So one of the students who found it – a white student – shimmied up the flagpole and took that flag down.”
To make extra money in the 1960s and 1970s, Foster would referee sports events. He would drive home at night and pass stores flying Confederate flags. If there were a flag, he would not stop for a cold drink or to use the restroom.
Yet in his dozen years serving as a legislator beneath that Confederate battle flag – when he was the only black representative from York County and one of just a couple dozen blacks in office across the state – he remained undaunted, because he had been taught not to hate anyone.
“I couldn’t allow (the flag) to distract me from getting things done,” Foster said. “We had to wait for the appropriate time, but we knew why it was up there.”
Foster was close friends with many white lawmakers, including Sen. Harvey Peeler, the Gaffney Republican who represents a large swath of western York County – one of just three senators to vote last week against removing the Confederate battle flag from Statehouse grounds.
“We represented some of the same people in our districts – him in the Senate, me in the House,” Foster said. “We went to events together, and if I couldn’t go he spoke for me, and if he couldn’t go I spoke for him.
“We were friends and remain so. He was a very good man then, and he is a very good man now.”
There were many Confederate flags flying in rural York and Cherokee counties in those days, Foster said, and he understands why Peeler would vote the way he did last week – even if he does not agree.
“If I needed Mr. Peeler today,” he said, “I would call on him, and I am sure he would call on me.”
In 2000, a few years after Foster left office, he had no problem when a legislative compromise moved the Confederate flag from atop the Statehouse dome to the grounds outside.
“It took the flag from the dome, and the process had started,” he said. “It was a start. It was an action. It was something.”
The removal of the flag from the Statehouse grounds altogether, Foster said, means the state he loves so much is “growing out of its past.”
“It’s time,” he said
Sam Foster knows what he is talking about. He was born and raised in segregation, was instrumental in the success of integration, and was a leader of his state as a legislator, director of the state employment commission, Winthrop trustee, and so much more.
He has devoted his entire life to South Carolinians of all colors, after living the first half of his life being told that he was less than whites because he was black.
Foster is no less a man than any man on earth – no matter who flies what flag over his head.
It is unfortunate and troubling that it took the murders of nine people to spur lawmakers to act, he said, but he knows that the killings pushed the political men and women – black and white – in that Statehouse where he worked for a dozen years to take down that flag forever.
And Sam Foster is proud.
Andrew Dys • 803-329-4065 • firstname.lastname@example.org