February 28, 2022

Black Educators Who Impacted My Life

By: Diana B. Figueroa, Senior Vice President of Marketing, Communications and Strategic Initiatives

As a product of the public school system in Arizona, I attended multiple schools in the greater Phoenix area from preschool to college. During that time, I had the opportunity to meet and learn from many great teachers, staff and administrators. This month, as we celebrate Black History Month in the U.S., I would like to highlight three amazing African American educators who have impacted my life: Dr. Eddie Lewis, Maxine O. Bush and Betty Fairfax.

Diana B. Figueroa’s grandfather Theodore R. Buchanan

It’s important to note that celebrating African American and Black culture and all of our history and contributions shouldn’t be limited to just one month. Having said that, I am very proud to celebrate my African American heritage this month. My grandfather on my mother’s side, Theodore R. Buchanan, was born in Muscogee (Creek Nation) in Oklahoma in 1904. He was African American and Cherokee. He married my Hispanic grandmother from Arizona in the 1940s. Together they raised eight ethnically diverse children. My Tata Ted, as we called him, was a wealth of wisdom, stories and experiences that spanned from Oklahoma to Arizona for more than 80 years. He taught me a lot and is part of my American (Black) History.

Dr. Eddie Lewis

The first educator I’d like to highlight is my dear friend, mentor and former junior high school principal, Dr. Eddie Lewis.

Dr. Lewis has been a mentor to me almost my entire life. Even after he retired as a longtime educator and administrator at the Roosevelt School District, he kept in touch with me and my family. Eddie has mentored me as recently as a few years ago, while I was an executive director at the Roosevelt School District, long after his retirement.

Dr. Eddie Lewis

Dr. Eddie J. Lewis had a long career as an Arizona educator but was originally from Crowley, Louisiana. Born in 1939, Dr. Lewis attended a segregated elementary and high school.

Diana B. Figueroa with mentor and former principal Dr. Eddie Lewis and his wife Captoria, who is also a retired educator.

Starting when he was 10 years old, Dr. Lewis picked cotton along with his grandmother and two sisters. While doing this and working other jobs, he attended school and recalls having to walk two miles back to school daily to practice and play basketball.

After completing high school in 1958, Dr. Lewis entered Southern University in Baton Rouge where he majored in education.

On his first day, he found out he didn’t have enough money to enroll in his classes and had no idea what he was going to do.  As he was walking down the sidewalk in the pouring rain — feeling very disappointed because he only had $60 to his name — he met someone who through a small act of kindness changed his life.

Out of nowhere, a man, who ended up knowing his high school principal, approached him and after a brief discussion, he offered to loan Eddie the extra $20 needed to register for college. Eddie registered and attended the university. During his last year of college that same man became the president of the university. Eddie approached him to repay him the $20 he had loaned him years earlier and although the man didn’t recall ever lending Eddie the money, Eddie kept to his word and paid him back.

Later in life, Dr. Lewis was recruited by the late Dr. C.O. Greenfield, who was a principal in the Roosevelt School District and a professor at Southern University. Dr. Lewis eventually landed at John F. Kennedy Middle School in the Roosevelt School District, where he remained for 10 years. 

While he was principal at Kennedy in the 80s, I was fortunate that our paths crossed when I was a hard-headed young pre-teenager in the seventh grade. Although I performed well in the classroom, I was called into the office on more than one occasion where I got to know Dr. Lewis and heard many of his lectures.

Later, Dr. Lewis was asked to open a new elementary school on 7th Street and Dobbins, which is now called Maxine O. Bush School.

After 20 years as a principal at four schools in Roosevelt School District, Dr. Lewis was named Director of Personnel for the Roosevelt School District in 1992 and Assistant Superintendent of Human Resources for the district in 1993.

Diana B. Figueroa served as a long-term 4th-grade substitute teacher at Maxine O. Bush Elementary School.

Maxine O. Bush

Mrs. Bush was kind and had a huge smile on her face always. She served as a guidance counselor in addition to teaching. Prior to naming the school, parents, students and staff members were given the opportunity to select the name of the school.  “The name they selected was Maxine O. Bush School, the first time a school had been named in honor of a teacher in that district,” said Dr. Lewis. It was an honor to have known her while she was teaching and an honor to have taught in a school named after an African American woman who was also one of my role models.

In 2010, after he had been retired for four years, the Superintendent asked for help when the Arizona Department of Education was considering taking over the school district. Dr. Lewis stepped in during a time of crisis and helped the district fill a large number of positions in order to “save” the school district. Dr. Lewis informed the Governing School Board and the Superintendent at the time that he did not want to be compensated or honored for his services, however, he received a Leadership Award.

Dr. Lewis has taught me many things, including to never give up hope, work hard and you can achieve anything in life that you want. He has always been a champion in my corner and for that I am grateful. I am glad he will be able to read this blog honoring him. Thank you, Dr. Lewis!

Betty Fairfax at Diana B. Figueroa’s mother’s 60th birthday party at El Portal restaurant.

Betty Fairfax

Another amazing Black educator and role model I had the good fortune of knowing was the legendary Betty Fairfax of the incomparable Fairfax sisters.

Ms. Fairfax, who also has a school named after her in Laveen, Arizona, was my younger brother’s guidance counselor at Central High School in the Phoenix Union High School District, where she worked for more than 50 years. She was not only his counselor, but she also frequently visited our grandmother’s house, well into her 80s.

I can still remember Ms. Fairfax driving up to visit in her sports car and fondly remember her dancing with my uncle at my mother’s 60th birthday party. She truly cared about her students and the community they lived in and was truly embedded in our community.

Betty and her sister Jean Fairfax were legendary. Much has been written about both of them. I’m truly grateful to have witnessed their work first-hand in my community. Both Fairfax sisters are known for their deep-rooted work in education, philanthropy and civil rights. They championed equity and access before those were popular terms. They lived and breathed what they believed in. They were two amazing leaders, who happened to be Black women. They were role models to me and to so many others.

The two sisters, who both lived in Phoenix, focused their work primarily on the public education system. The Fairfax sisters established the Betty H. & Jean E. Fairfax Fund for Educational Equity and gave hundreds of thousands of dollars annually to the educational fund and other causes that impact so many students’ lives.

Betty Fairfax with grandmother and brother Rico at his high school graduation

As a teacher and mentor to my brother, and countless numbers of other students, Ms. Betty Fairfax continued her life-long passion for promoting education to students of color in the public education system.

In the 1950s, she taught at Carver High School, a segregated school, and was later one of the first Black teachers to teach as desegregation was first ordered within the county.

As shared in her obituary, before her passing in 2010, Betty and Jean established the Dan and Inez Wood Fairfax Fund at Southern Education Foundation and endowed the Betty H. Fairfax Fund for Educational Equity at the Arizona Community Foundation. They are also known for creating a fund to provide scholarships for the 1987 graduates of the Bethune Elementary School in Phoenix. Because of their tireless work, in 2007, Governor Janet Napolitano honored Betty with a State of Arizona Proclamation recognizing Betty’s services to the state.

We must remember that we stand on the shoulders of those who have come before us – educators like Dr. Eddie Lewis, Mrs. Maxine O. Bush and Ms. Betty Fairfax and her sister Jean Fairfax.

– Diana B. Figueroa

Recognizing the contributions made by Black Americans in education and in all other areas is vital to understanding the true history of our nation. Black history is American history.

As an ethnically diverse young person growing up in South Phoenix, I didn’t see a lot of people on television or many elected officials who looked like me and my family. There also weren’t a lot of people in my neighborhood who held bachelors, masters or doctorate degrees. Having these amazing, intelligent, caring educators as role models in my life has made a tremendous impact in my life. Thank you to Dr. Eddie Lewis, Ms. Maxine Bush and Ms. Betty Fairfax for all that they have done for so many students like me.

Like these educators, I am proud to work in the education field because I believe that obtaining a higher education is a game-changer. I know that it has been in my life. I will continue to advocate for and champion education, as well as diversity, equity and inclusion, as the heroes before me have done.

Let’s continue to learn, grow and share stories about amazing people of color beyond the month of February.