For Black History Month, the Globe is featuring profiles on the living civil rights leaders who were named Boston “heroes” on the 1965 Freedom Plaza that surrounds the “Embrace” sculpture.
Through more than four decades as a city councilor, School Committee chairman, and Suffolk County register of probate, Felix D. Arroyo dedicated his trailblazing career to the fight for social justice and equity from the time he first entered the mostly white world of Boston politics.
Born in Puerto Rico, where he was raised in public housing, Arroyo, now 74, was the first in his family to receive a college education and came to Boston to continue his graduate studies at Harvard and MIT.
Arroyo was the first Latino elected to the Boston City Council, where he was a fierce advocate for progressive reform, at times drawing the ire of other councilors. He served the final seven years of his career as register of probate, where he worked to diversify the office by hiring more people of color and recruited bilingual workers and lawyers to assist non-English-speaking people.
Today, Arroyo is widely known as the patriarch of one of Boston’s most recognized political families. Two of his sons, Ricardo and Felix G. Arroyo, have previously served as city councilors, and Felix G. ran for mayor in 2013.
To see his name included among Boston’s “heroes” surrounding the “Embrace” sculpture on Boston Common is “an honor” as well as “a strong recognition of the fight that we are doing for equity and justice in this city,” Arroyo said in a recent interview.
“Martin Luther King is an example of people that enter into the fight for justice out of love, out of understanding that there is a need to sacrifice things that you may feel are important, but the important thing really is love and the opportunity to do it,” he said.
While he was a student, Arroyo said he was working on a study for Harvard about busing when he interviewed a group of Latina women as they waited for their children at a bus stop in the South End. When he spoke with them, they were unaware of how the busing system worked or where their children were going to school, let alone the political process behind education in Boston, he said.
“It showed me that people needed to learn and that participation was important,” he said. “Especially for my people. They didn’t know about the School Committee. In our countries … that doesn’t exist.”
Arroyo mounted his first run for the Boston School Committee in 1981 and became the first Latino candidate to reach the final election, but fell short of winning a seat. He ran a second time two years later and placed fifth in a race for four at-large seats.
He joined Flynn’s administration in 1985 as an education adviser and later became the city’s personnel director. In 1991, Flynn appointed Arroyo to a new School Committee after the elected board was abolished.
Arroyo ran for a seat on the City Council in 2001 and placed fifth in a race for four at-large seats. As the runner-up, he gained a seat on the City Council a year later when City Councilor Francis “Mickey” Roache was elected register of deeds. Arroyo went on to win a pair of reelection campaigns in 2003 and 2005.
Arroyo became the first person of color to serve as Suffolk register of probate in 2015, where he oversaw the registry that handles filings including divorces, wills, child custody cases, and other family issues.
He faced a series of controversies and was at one point suspended amid questions about his performance. Arroyo argued that he had been the target of racially motivated attacks by white courthouse employees who opposed his efforts to build a more diverse staff. An internal probe by the Massachusetts Trial Court found that employees in the probate office did resent those efforts and sought to undermine Arroyo.
In March, Arroyo announced he would retire from his post as register of probate. Reflecting on the last 40 years, he said the city’s approach to issues around race and equity has improved, but there is more work to do.
“We are more clear on the importance of having the participation of people of color in everything,” he said. “That doesn’t mean we have solved it, it just means we are more conscious, more aware of it.”
Nick Stoico can be reached at email@example.com.