Today's New Yorker Birthday is Jane Bolin, America's First African-American Woman Judge
Jane Matilda Bolin was born onApril 11, 1908 in Poughkeepsie, New York. She was a trailblazing African American lawyer and the first African American woman to graduate from Yale Law School. Jane was also the first African American woman to join the New York City Bar Association and the New York City Law Department. In 1939, she was sworn into the bench of the New York Domestic Relations Court (later Family Court) by Mayor Fiorello La Guardia and became the first African American woman to serve as a judge. She served for four decades and continuously fought institutional racism. She died on January 8, 2007, at the age of ninety-eight at her NYC home in Long Island City, Queens.
Judge Bolin was born to an interracial couple, Matilda Ingram Emery and Gaius C. Bolin. Her father was an attorney who headed the Dutchess County Bar Association and cared for the family after his wife's illness and death, which occurred when Bolin was eight years old. Jane’s mother was from a family that had emigrated from the British Isles.
Gaius Charles Bolin (1864-1946) and his daughter Jane were descendants of African Americans who had lived in or near the Hudson River town of Poughkeepsie, New York, for generations, first in slavery and then, after the adoption of gradual emancipation laws in 1799 and 1817, as free men and women. Gaius, one of thirteen children born to a farmer and merchant and his wife, attended Poughkeepsie’s recently integrated public high school. There he so impressed the principal that he urged Gaius to apply to his alma mater, Williams College. After two years’ further study of Latin and Greek for the entrance exam, he matriculated at Williams, an elite liberal arts college located in a small town in western He became the first African American to graduate from Williams.
For the next year Gaius worked in his father’s store and then read law for two years in the office of a local, white attorney. He was admitted to the New York bar in 1892 and, after a few more years with the attorney, opened his own practice in his overwhelmingly white hometown, joining Poughkeepsie’s tiny African American professional class.
Jane Bolin followed her father into the law. “There has never been a moment I can remember,” she once told a reporter, “when I wanted to be anything else than a lawyer.” As a child, she loved “being surrounded by those shelves and shelves of law books” in his office and “hearing him talk.” She shared her father’s awareness of racial bias. At the age of fifteen, she chastised the local newspaper for identifying the race of African Americans in its stories but not Caucasians and for rendering their speech in Southern dialect.
Jane Bolin was a superb student who graduated from high school in her mid-teens and went on to enroll at Wellesley College having prevented from enrolling at Vassar College as it did not accept black students at that time. Though facing overt racism and social isolation, she graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1928 and was officially recognized as one of the top students of her class. She then attended Yale Law School, contending with further social hostilities, yet nonetheless graduating in 1931.
Jane worked with her family's practice in her home city for a time before marrying attorney Ralph E. Mizelle in 1933 and relocating to New York. As the decade progressed, after campaigning unsuccessfully for a state assembly seat on the Republican ticket, she took on assistant corporate counsel work for New York City in 1937, creating another landmark as the first African-American woman to hold that position. Two years later, she received her appointment as a judge in NYC's Domestic Relations Court from Mayor La Guardia.
Having been assigned to what would be known as Family Court, Bolin was a thoughtful, conscientious force on the bench, confronting a range of issues on the domestic front and taking great care when it came to the plight of children. Judge Bolin presided in every borough of the city. “I am a judge, not for Harlem, nor the children of Harlem, but for the whole city and for all the children who are in trouble.” She took “an individual view” of each case, she said, digging into “the background of the child, his physical and mental endowments, all his emotional patterns.” Her job, she thought, was not to punish but to help.
She also changed segregationist policies that had been entrenched in the system, including skin-color based assignments for probation officers. Additionally, Bolin worked with first lady Eleanor Roosevelt in providing support for the Wiltwyck School, a comprehensive, holistic program to help eradicate juvenile crime among boys. Three different mayors reappointed her. Shortly after her appointment to the Domestic Rights Court, Bolin served as a legal adviser to the National Council of Negro Women at the urging of Mary McLeod Bethune herself.
Bolin was reinstated as a judge for three additional terms, 10 years each, after her first, also serving on the boards of several organizations, including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the New York Urban League. Though she preferred to continue, Bolin was required to retire from the bench at the age of 70, subsequently working as a consultant and school-based volunteer, as well as with the New York State Board of Regents.
Constance Baker Motley, the famed civil rights lawyer and judge, cited Bolin as a role model. Yet unlike theirs, her name has remained relatively unknown. A 2011 biography was published on Bolin's career—Daughter of the Empire State: The Life of Judge Jane Bolin by Jacqueline A. McLeod for the University of Illinois Press.