Features, 2024 Celebrating Black Voices

‘She Broke New Ground’: Ruth-Arlene Howe’s Legacy of Inclusion and Encouragement at BC Law

From her arrival as a law student to her emergence as the school’s first tenured female Black professor, the work of Ruth-Arlene Howe has echoed through the halls of the Boston College Law School since 1970.

Her legacy at the school is one of inclusion and encouragement, characterized by an ability to recognize the true potential in her students, according to Mark Brodin, former associate dean for academic affairs at BC Law. 

“It’s a legacy of the first Black woman on the faculty, and—as far as I remember—the second woman on the faculty,” Brodin said. “She broke new ground. She pushed Boston College Law School in a forward, progressive direction.” 

In addition to being the first Black female faculty member to achieve tenure and the rank of full professor at BC Law, Howe was a founding faculty advisor to the BC Journal of Law and Social Justice and served as an advisor for BC Law’s Black Law Student Association (BLSA). 

But for some of her former students, her legacy extends beyond a list of accomplishments. 

Her support of all students—especially students of color—is one of her most memorable traits, according to Leslie Harris, BC Law ’84 and Howe’s former student.

“95 percent of students of color would say that she was a mentor, a person they could go to for guidance, not just while we were in school, but even after school,” Harris said. “You know, it’s one thing to be connected to a professor while you’re there, but another to stay connected.” 

Before arriving at BC Law, Howe studied sociology and anthropology with a minor in psychology as an undergraduate at Wellesley College. Late in her junior year, she was inspired to pursue her Master of Social Work (MSW), she said, which she received from Simmons University. 

A guest presentation by the Simmons School of Social Work director convinced me that pursuit of a MSW degree would be the best way to acquire the skills needed to fulfill my obligation to contribute to the improvement of the position and status of my community of Americans of African slave descent,” she wrote in a statement to The Heights. 

After receiving her MSW in 1957, Howe worked for the Catholic Youth Service Bureau in Cleveland, Ohio for four years.

She then returned to Boston with her husband, where she said she balanced motherhood with her continuing work to support the Black community.

“I joined the [League of Women Voters] and began working on issues affecting low-income housing and educational services as a way to fulfill my personal commitment to serve my underserved Black community,” Howe wrote.

Before taking the next step in her education, Howe had to decide between business school and law school. She ultimately decided that a law degree better aligned with her background in social work, she said.

“It was clear to me that I could more easily build on my social work training and experience pursuing a law degree than a MBA at the Carroll School,” Howe wrote.

When Howe first arrived at BC Law as a student in the fall of 1971, her class consisted of only 12 Black students, she said. 

After joining the school to teach as a full-time faculty member in 1978, Howe said she experienced rejections from students as a result of her race. 

“For five years I taught one section of first year Property at 9 am while Mary Ann Glendon (with whom I had taken Property) taught the other at the same time,” Howe wrote. “We became aware that a student assigned to my section had been attending all of her classes and not mine, but took my mid-term exam.”

Despite this experience, Howe supported students of all races and helped create connections across student groups, according to Harris.

“She’s always there to help students,” Harris said. “The Hispanic student group would go to her. The Asian student group would go to her. And, as a result, those are still my friends because we were all able to use the same mentor who was a role model for us.” 

While serving as an advisor for BLSA, Howe often hosted meals at her house, according to Harris. Charles “Chuck” Walker, BC Law ’78 and a former student of Howe, said he first met Howe after she invited him and other students to a potluck dinner at her home. 

“Boston was as … far east as I’d ever been, and my first impression was, ‘Wow, this is cool. She’s a teacher, and she’s a law professor, and she’s inviting us all over for a potluck dinner,’” Walker said. “And I felt like I was in good hands.” 

Howe’s experience as a working mother contributed to her ability to support her students in similar situations, Harris said. 

“I also had to take my child to school with me often, and I could leave him with Professor Howe or leave him in the BLSA office, because they were supportive,” Harris said. “You needed someone who understood being a parent and a student at the same time, and Professor Howe had done that.” 

Walker said Howe’s commitment to her family was related to her scholarship in family law. 

“She’d written extensively about interracial adoptions and care for adoption,” Walker said. “So she pretty much lived her scholarship.” 

Howe managed to master her scholarship in family law while also constantly supporting students, according to Brodin.

“Students would seek her out for academic matters, for personal matters,” Brodin said. “She spent an awful lot of time mentoring them, advising them, counseling them, which makes it remarkable that she was able to produce the scholarship she did given the lines outside her office.”

Howe co-founded the Black Alumni Network (BAN) in 1985, according to a video by BC Law. Its founding was urged by the announcement of then BC Law Dean Richard Huber’s pending retirement, which pushed local alumni to formally organize, Howe said. 

“We created a structure that would promote the kind of relationships between students, alums and future administrations that had been developed during Huber’s 15-year tenure as dean,” she said.

Howe served as an anchor for BC Law alumni, keeping BAN connected to the school and its community, Harris said.

“Now as a group, we realized that we needed to be more formally connected to the law school,” Harris said. “So we took the little bit of money we had, a couple $100,000 at least, and we gave it to the law school in her name to create that lock.”

In addition to BAN, the Ruth-Arlene W. Howe ’74 Black Student Initiative is a scholarship started by alumni, and Harris said many donors only consider giving because her name is on it. BAN and BLSA also named the annual Ruth-Arlene W. Howe Heritage Dinner after her, according to Harris. 

“We want to celebrate professor Howe in any way that we can,” Harris said. “That’s why the heritage dinner that we have every year is named after her. And I think that speaks volumes to who she is, that we have both a scholarship and a dinner named after her.” 

Howe retired from teaching duties in the fall of 2009. Her retirement was saddening for many, according to Brodin. 

“I was not alone in being very disappointed when she left us,” Brodin said. “I tried to convince her to stay because she was just a force at the school. Every day that she was there she was a force, in the most positive way.” 

Nearly eight years later, The Massachusetts Black Lawyers Association awarded Howe with their top honor, the Lifetime Achievement Award, at their annual gala in 2017. 

For Walker, the legacy Howe leaves can be found in her care, calm voice of reason, and dedication to generations of Black people.

“Her legacy is carrying on the generation,” Walker said. “Bringing forth the generation of her parents, my parents—making sure it was instilled in all of us and our obligation, our resolve to get it right … She is direct evidence that God allows angels to walk among us.”

February 19, 2024