Sterling Foster

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Sterling Johnson Foster (born October 22, 1867 in Union Springs, Bullock County; died July 23, 1952 in Charlotte, North Carolina) was the pastor of South Highland Presbyterian Church and an insurance salesman.

Sterling was the son of Sterling Johnson Foster, a doctor, and the former Corneilia Virginia "Miss Ginny" Heard, both of Georgia. After their marriage, the Fosters moved to Union Springs, buying tens of thousands of acres of land and setting up a plantation. The younger Sterling lived a life of prosperity in his youth.

As a young adult, Foster obtained his B. A. from South West Presbyterian University near Memphis, Tennessee in 1889. He then obtained his M. A. from Princeton Theological Seminary in 1892 and was ordained that May. He then traveled to Edinburgh, Scotland where he spent some time before going to Germany for further study. He later returned to Memphis where he became minister of Idlewild Presbyterian Church. It was there that he met his wife, Anne Elizabeth Patterson, whom he married on December 17, 1896.

Sometime after their marriage, the couple moved to Birmingham where Foster became pastor of South Highland Presbyterian Church in 1903. The couple had three children: Sterling Johnson (1897), Josephine Patterson (1899) and Virginia Heard (1903). The family lived in the church's parsonage, first off Highland Avenue and later on Rose Avenue.

Over time, some members of the congregation noticed Foster didn't seem to believe in a literal interpretation of the Bible. Finally, around 1909, he was accused of heresy and given a week to answer whether he believed in literal interpretation. After a week of soul-searching, he answered that he didn't and was relieved of his pastoral duties. He had a nervous breakdown and spent some time in Indiana while his family temporarily moved back to Memphis.

The family reunited and returned to Birmingham and the former parsonage on Rose Avenue the following spring as Foster began a career as an insurance salesman. In 1912, Foster's mother died and, his father having died in 1899, he inherited a substantial amount of land and some money, being one of only four surviving children of his parents. The Fosters then built a large house on Niazuma Avenue.

The family lived beyond their means over the years, however, and eventually sold all of the inherited plantation land. They then relied in part on the assistance of their now-grown children. Hugo Black, who had married Josephine, eventually took possession of the house on Niazuma that the Fosters lived in. The Fosters' children, however, maintained the illusion that their parents were doing the Blacks a favor by letting the Blacks stay with them.

In 1933, Sterling's wife, Anne, began suffering from depression and was temporarily put into an institution. Sterling went to work for Franklin Roosevelt's campaign and was rewarded with a position on the National Emergency Council after Roosevelt was elected.

Sterling and Anne's daughter, Virginia, eventually brought Anne, still suffering from depression, to live with her and her family in Alexandria, Virginia, while Sterling stayed in Birmingham. Anne died in Alexandria in 1944. Sterling died in 1952 in North Carolina and was buried with his wife in Alexandria.

Preceded by:
J. J. Grier
Pastor of South Highland Presbyterian Church
April 1, 1903April 4, 1909
Succeeded by:
John Plunker


  • Robinson, Edgar Sutton. (1898). The Ministerial Directory. Oxford, OH: The Ministerial Directory Company. Accessed via Google Books on April 8, 2010.
  • Durr, Virginia Foster. (1985). Outside the Magic Circle: The Autobiography of Virginia Foster Durr. Tuscaloosa, AL: The University of Alabama Press.
  • Holmes, Rod. (2010). Sterling Johnson Foster genealogy. Accessed April 8, 2010.