There was no more elegant and dapper man in Richmond than Dr. Francis M. Foster, a dentist and amateur historian who knew more than anyone else about the obvious and not-so-obvious lore of his native city. He knew the subtleties of white as well as black Richmond history. Born in Jackson Ward and educated in segregated Richmond at Armstrong High School and Virginia Union University, he graduated in dentistry from Howard University. He practiced dentistry in the U.S. Army during World War II.
For many decades Foster worked out of a second-floor suite on North First Street in Jackson Ward. He was attentive to his patients and practice, but he was equally interested in what was happening beyond his dental chair, throughout the ward and in neighborhoods beyond. He and his close-knit siblings grew up in Jackson Ward and were reared in the bosom of historic Ebenezer Baptist Church, with its rich musical program, on West Leigh Street. Over the years he became the go-to guy for hundreds of people who had questions about Richmond, particularly its black history, which has a dearth of written material. Although he penned the occasional article, Foster was a walking oracle, a critical link to the oral tradition of African-American history.
Importantly, he was also a bridge both culturally and racially for such organizations as the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts and the Historic Richmond Foundation. As the city's white establishment sought to function more inclusively, his astute guidance on the political nuances of black Richmond was invaluable.
I don't know if he did the cooking in his household or just the grocery shopping. But for years, until just weeks before his death, the place I'd run into him most often was at the grocery store checkout line. More than shopping, I think he just loved getting out and about to survey the passing parade and chance-meet friends, patients, former students from the VCU School of Dentistry and admirers young and old. He had an infectious smile. His eyes danced no, pranced. He radiated warmth. But he always managed to inject seamlessly some fascinating tidbit of local history as if it were his mission.
Last week Benjamin Ross, a Richmond historian and the church historian at Sixth Mount Zion Baptist Church, shook his head slowly and said, "I don't know who we'll go to now that Dr. Foster is gone."