St. Petersburg — Over 80 well-wishers joined Winnie Foster to celebrate her 90th birthday Saturday, July 8 at the Allendale United Methodist Church. Mayor Rick Kriseman and Senator Darryl Rouson attended the event to honor Foster’s work as a community activist who fought for integration, voting rights and fair job opportunities in Pinellas County.
Sheena Qualles organized the birthday party and described Foster’s life of service as a “gigantic, indelible footprint of her dedication to her community.”
“Winnie thinks of herself as a pollinator,” said Qualles, a native northeasterner who has lived in the Bay area for the past two years. She described how foster executes her “pollination” to bring out the best in people, so they willingly serve their community.
“She’s always asking for a ride home here and there, and as she’s getting that ride, she has you drop her off to different places. She’s introducing you to people. She’s sprouting ideas in your head and she’s seeing what you can do for the community…she’s telling you about yourself and things you can do that didn’t even come to fruition in your own head.”
If anyone sits and talks with Foster for 10 minutes, you would know that Qualles has painted a clear picture of her as an activist who loves people.
“She brings out the community service in people,” said Qualles, who approached Allendale United Methodist’s Pastor Andy Oliver in April about using his church for the birthday party.
“He was more than willing to let us use the church for this special occasion.”
During the party, friends and co-workers shared their experiences in working with Foster who has lived in Florida since 1969. One of the special moments during the party occurred when Mayor Kriseman presented her with the Key to the City.
During an interview with Foster the day after the event, she not only talked about how thrilled she was to have been honored by the mayor, but also how she was deeply moved by Rouson who saw her in 1969-70 as a catalyst working alongside C. Bette Wimbish and the League of Women Voters as well as with Judge James B. Sanderlin.
From concerned citizen to activist
Foster’s zeal to serve her community was shaped as a little girl growing up in a Quaker family environment in Pennsylvania. When she came home from a Quaker funeral one day, she asked her mother about the idea that being a Quaker was a right.
Her mother responded that it was a birthright. Young Winnie decided to observe her surrounding environment to determine if Quakers were indeed what they were professing to be.
Historically, Quakers and other religious groups followed William Penn to Indiana to escape the religious persecution of England’s King George. Winnie found a satisfying answer to her question in a Quaker boarding school where her father met her mother. Likewise, she would meet her husband at the same boarding school.
Foster solidified what would become her soul’s mantra—fighting for women’s rights, integration and equal rights in the workplace. Before she moved to Rhode Island to begin her work, she not only learned that a relative’s farm had been used as a stop on the Underground Railroad, but she also had an opportunity to hear Bayard Rustin, who worked with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., speak about activism and challenging racism when he spoke at her school.
Foster began working as a community activist at the Unitarian Church in Rhode Island. She worked on her first political campaign to help her pastor, who was a progressive and spoke out against the Vietnam War. Although her pastor did not win, the dye was cast and Foster knew she had found her calling.
Fast forward to 1969
Foster, her husband and their youngest child moved to Florida for his job.
“No, no, I don’t want to move to Florida,” said Foster until she arrived and found out how much she could contribute to helping local, regional and state leaders advance integration and break down segregation in addition to fighting for women’s rights.
Eventually, Foster’s pollinating character led to her to join the League of Women Voters alongside Wimbish who was the first African-American member of the St. Petersburg City Council. In the election for Pinellas County Judge in 1971-72, Foster found herself contributing significantly to help Attorney James B. Sanderlin become the first black judge in Pinellas County.
“I was very blond and white,” said Foster humorously. “I went up to North Pinellas County and shared with the white people there how wonderful this lawyer from Boston University School of Law would be as a judge for Pinellas County. I handed posters with no pictures of him but demonstrated his capabilities.”
Foster was living her passion as a community activist. However, she was only a breath away from hatred and bigotry. One such experience occurred when she worked as a consultant and reporter for The Weekly Challenger.
“One day when I walked into the office when it was located on Ninth Street South, Cleve was in his office and the door was shut, which was unusual. Then, these three white men in suits came out. He said to me, ‘Well that story you’re working on can’t be published because the woman who worked for the city and was part of the National Organization for Women.’ She was feeding me info about how Human Relations with the city were not following federal law in their hiring practices.”
According to Foster, Publisher Cleveland Johnson said that the men threatened to pull the city’s legal advertisement if he published what he had learned from the insider. Even though desegregation was the wave of the future, racism could cast its dark shadow anytime and anywhere.
Foster has a wealth of stories such as these about all aspects of life in St. Petersburg. She is a treasured member of the community, and the love in the room was palpable.
To reach Allen Buchanan, email firstname.lastname@example.org