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Betty Jean Furgerson, a leader in civil rights, education and the arts, dies at age 91

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Betty Jean Furgerson. — photo courtesy of the Iowa Women’s Hall of Fame

Betty Jean Furgerson, a leading advocate for civil rights, education, the arts and public broadcasting, died last week at the age of 91. According to an obituary posted by Cedar Memorial Park Cemetery Funeral Home, Furgerson died peacefully on Aug. 14 at her home in Cedar Rapids, where she’d lived since 2010.

Her life was “one of service and leadership,” as described by the Iowa Women’s Hall of Fame when Furgerson was inducted in 1990. She was selected for the Hall of Fame not just her for her civil rights work — which included serving as director of the Waterloo Human Rights Commission from 1974 to 1992, and treasurer of the Regional Executive Council on Civil Rights — but also for her work to advance education in the state.

Furgerson was a leader on education at both the state and local levels. “She was one of the original members of the Iowa Department of Education’s Multicultural, Nonsexist Curriculum Committee and aided in the formulation of the state policy that human relations training be a part of teacher preparation and relicensure,” the Hall of Fame noted. From 1978 to 1990, Furgerson served on the Board of Directors of the Waterloo Community Schools.

Her work in education stretched from preschool, as director of parental education for the Black Hawk County Head Start program in the 1960s, to Iowa’s universities, as a member of the Board of Regents during the 1990s.

Furgerson was a member of the board of directors of Iowa Public Television for 35 years, and served as its president for 20 years. Her work at IPTV reflected her commitment to expanding educational opportunities and increasing diversity of voices available to the public, as did her work as a founding member of KBBG Afro-American Community Broadcasting in Waterloo and her service on the Iowa Arts Council.

In 2006, Furgerson received the prestigious David J. Brugger Award, which honors “an individual who has shown exemplary leadership in grassroots advocacy on behalf of public television.” It was one of many honors she received during her long career of public service.

Betty Jean Furgerson was born in Waterloo in 1927. As the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier reported, “Her father, Dr. Lee Furgerson, was the only black physician in town when Furgerson was born, while her mother, Lily, became the first African-American to teach in the Waterloo school system.” Her grandparents were born into slavery.

Furgerson graduated from East High School in Waterloo. She received a bachelor’s degree from Iowa State Teachers College (now the University of Northern Iowa) and a masters in social work from the University of Kansas.

In 2010, Furgerson was selected as one of the Courier’s Eight over 80, an honor for octogenarians whose leadership has improved life in the Waterloo area. The designation highlighted her decades of work to make sure all voices in the community are heard.

“People need to stop and listen and learn the elements of their community,” Furgerson told the Courier. “When they see something that’s not right, they need to speak up.”

That same year, Furgerson moved to Cedar Rapids. “She continued to read biographies, history books, and periodicals constantly, watch Iowa Public Television, and educate and delight her nieces and nephews,” according to her obituary, which also notes, “she enjoyed the company of her astute cat, Coraline.”

Furgerson, known as “B.J.” to friends and family, is survived by her sister, Rebecca Furgerson Sloan, 23 nieces and nephews, 22 great nieces and nephews, and 10 great-great nieces and nephews. Her obituary explained that donations in her memory can be made to the Friends of Iowa Public Television, and the Lily Nina Furgerson Endowed Scholarship Fund of the University of Northern Iowa Foundation.

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