by Charlene Weigel
Foster Memorial AME Zion Church is an airy space with a vaulted ceiling, polished wooden pews and arched stained-glass windows. A small, framed photograph of a woman sits in the vestibule. She meets the camera with a direct gaze. Light brightens one eye; shadows obscure the other. Her halo of curls is silvered by age. Her lips, pursed with determination, are edged with wrinkles from a lifetime of smiles. The caption reads, “Mrs. Amanda Foster, The Founder. December 27, 1807 – July 26, 1904.”
Foster’s life is inspirational and elusive. Her story, like that of many 19th century black Americans, consists of gaps partially bridged by oral history, and legal and census documents. There is also a brief biographical sketch of Foster written by a friend. Few facts, but a legacy that speaks for itself.
Baby Amanda faced formidable odds. Her biographical sketch indicates she was born free to an enslaved woman in the household of Governor DeWitt Clinton. The smaller of twin girls, she was deemed “hardly worth the trouble of trying to raise,” and given away by the Governor’s wife. Who was her father? What happened to her mother? Her twin sister? What was her birth surname? Even these basic facts were not recorded.
At 15, she married John Bowman and gained a surname. Foster had already been in the workforce for seven years, hired at eight to care for a child of a wealthy Albany family. She later worked as a baby nurse and steamboat stewardess. She leveraged this work experience with an innate financial acumen to become a successful Tarrytown entrepreneur, running her own candy store on Main Street while working as a barber. She and John Bowman were able to buy property and build a house, without a mortgage, on the western end of Main Street. Years later, Amanda had amassed enough wealth on her own to purchase more property in the area, an unusual feat for a black woman at the time.
In addition to her business talent, Foster possessed a fearless moral clarity. Traveling south as a baby nurse in 1839, she witnessed slavery and slave auctions. In Kentucky, Foster helped a young girl head north on the Underground Railroad by giving away her own free papers. Foster risked arrest since it was illegal in Kentucky to help an enslaved person escape, and because she had to make her way north without papers. Diane Pratt, a current Church member, said she learned in Sunday school of Foster’s support for enslaved people fleeing north. Pratt’s comments echoed those of Henry King, Jr., author of the biographical sketch, that “among the leading Abolitionists, she takes a leading part.”
Foster had a religious conversion experience in her early 20s, and cited her faith as her “shield and comfort” for the rest of her life. She drew on that faith through the loss of John Bowman and her second husband, Henry Foster. Before Henry Foster died, he made her promise to build a church to house the growing Tarrytown AME Zion congregation that they and two others had founded. With characteristic determination, Foster reached out for donations to many well-known local residents whom she had befriended. Washington Irving, General Benedict, Dr. John Todd, the Cobbs and others responded. Foster purchased a lot on Wildey Street, and the cornerstone for the present Church was laid in 1864.
The Fosters adopted two children: William H. and Amanda. Descendants of both children remained active in the Church. Countless other members over the past 150 years referred to Foster as “mother” for her role in the birth of their congregation. That congregation today is small but mighty, and a force for good in the rivertowns. In December, Church member Tina Whitely was already working with other local churches and synagogues on the annual interdenominational service for Martin Luther King Day.
Whitely and Pratt were frank in describing the challenges facing the Church today, including an aging congregation and a foundation that needs repair. But Whitely said she finds inspiration in “a little lady’s determination.” Like Amanda Foster, Whitely, Pratt and the congregation continue to muscle through obstacles. The foundation of Foster Memorial AME Zion Church that matters most is strong indeed.