Jane Matilda Bolin
April 11, 1908 – January 8, 2007
Jane Matilda Bolin entered the world in Poughkeepsie, New York as the daughter of Matilda Ingram Emery and Gaius C. Bolin. Bolin’s mother was a White Englishwoman while her father was born to an American Indian mother and Black American father. Even before her birth, the Bolin family had gained some distinction as the elder Bolin had been the first Black graduate of Williams College and became an attorney.
When Bolin was still a child, her mother became ill and passed away at which time her father assumed primary responsibility for raising her and her brother. Bolin spent long hours at her father’s law office and developed an admiration for and interest in his leather-bound law books. At the time, Poughkeepsie was a predominantly White town and Bolin noticed that some people stared at or treated her differently because she was biracial.
Bolin’s father established a local branch of the NAACP and allowed her to read the organization’s magazine, Crisis. Within its pages, she learned about lynchings and other acts of racially motivated oppression that Black people faced. Those early experiences sparked a desire to become involved with social justice.
An industrious student, Bolin graduated from high school at 16. Having grown up mere blocks from the prestigious Vassar College, that school would seem to be the obvious choice for college. But Vassar was not an option for Bolin as the school did not accept Black students. Instead, Bolin became one of only two Black students enrolled at Wellesley.
While Wellesley accepted Black students, they did not receive a warm welcome. Excluding an invitation to portray Aunt Jemima in a skit, Bolin and her Black classmate were otherwise socially shunned to the degree that they moved off-campus. Their ostracism resulted in a lonely college experience, the memory of which remained with Bolin many years later.
Bolin’s grades placed her among the top 20 students in her graduating class. Yet when she began considering careers, a guidance counselor and her father attempted to discourage her from pursuing law. The guidance counselor rationalized that there were few opportunities in law for women and none for Black women. A lawyer himself, her father was initially concerned that the profession would expose Bolin to some of the most terrible aspects of humanity. But Bolin’s persistence resulted in her father relenting and providing support for her to attend law school.
Unfortunately, while Bolin would become the first Black woman to graduate from Yale Law School, she again had to endure racially motivated isolation and mistreatment. After graduation, she briefly joined her older brother who had also become a lawyer at their father’s law firm. But during her first year of law school Bolin had met fellow law student, Ralph Mizelle who became a lawyer in New York City. When the two married, Bolin relocated. In part for her husband but also for the opportunity to carve out her own identity in a big city rather than in the shadow of her father and brother in the relatively small town of her birth.
Bolin had graduated from a very elite undergrad college and one of America’s top law schools. Yet, most likely due to a combination of sexism and racism her applications were all rejected when she applied to jobs. Undeterred, she and Mizelle started a law firm and their marriage also produced one son. After working together for five years, the two went separate ways professionally. Bolin found work as the Assistant Corporation Counsel of the City of New York while Mizelle accepted a position in Washington, D.C. resulting in a somewhat long-distance marriage.
After serving in that position for two years, Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia invited Bolin to a meeting at the World’s Fair. No context or explanation was offered in advance and when Bolin arrived with Mizelle she was unexpectedly asked to raise her right hand to be sworn in as a judge. The appointment made Bolin America’s first Black female judge. She was assigned to what is now known as Family Court and typically presided over cases related to juveniles.
Bolin was assigned to what is now known as Family Court and typically presided over cases related to juveniles and domestic issues. In efforts to put children in her courtroom at ease, Bolin did not wear the traditional black robes worn by judges. And she used her authority to push back against segregation and discrimination.
Her rulings helped prevent publicly funded childcare agencies from declining children based on their race. And probation officers could no longer be assigned based on their race or religion. Bolin collaborated with Eleanor Roosevelt on the Wiltwyck School, a camp that provided primarily Black juvenile delinquent boys and their families with support, resources, and counseling.
Bolin’s original ten-year term as a judge was re-confirmed by three mayors extending her judgeship to 40 years. For half of her career on the bench, Bolin remained America’s only Black female judge. Having achieved her childhood dream of making a difference, Bolin actively avoided consideration for other positions that would have taken her away from this area of the court.
The judicial system had set 70 as the mandatory retirement age of judges thus Bolin was forced to retire when she reached the cut-off age. Yet, even in retirement, Bolin continued to work on behalf of children’s welfare. She spent two years volunteering in New York City public schools as a reading instructor. Bolin also worked for the New York State Board of Regents.
Back when Bolin had first been sworn in as a judge, her father worried as he believed stress from the job caused judges to die early. He had also been concerned about Bolin’s exposure to gruesome aspects of humanity as a lawyer. Yet, he did not need to worry. Jane Matilda Bolin lived a long life, passing away at the age of 98 in Long Island City, Queens, New York.
- Biography.com Editors, ed. 2021. “Jane Bolin.” Biography.com. A&E Networks Television. April 21, 2021. https://www.biography.com/political-figure/jane-bolin.
- Carlton, Genevieve. 2021. “How Jane Bolin Battled Racism and Sexism to Become the First Black Female Judge in America.” All That’s Interesting. July 26, 2021. https://allthatsinteresting.com/jane-bolin.
- Edwards, Breanna. 2020. “Jane Bolin, The First Black Woman Judge.” Essence. February 20, 2020. https://www.essence.com/feature/jane-bolin-first-black-woman-judge-history/.
- Historical Society of the New York Courts. 2020. “Judge Jane Bolin.” Historical Society of the New York Courts. February 21, 2020. https://history.nycourts.gov/judge-jane-bolin/.
- Martin, Douglas. 2007. “Jane Bolin, the Country’s First Black Woman to Become a Judge, Is Dead at 98.” The New York Times. January 10, 2007. https://www.nytimes.com/2007/01/10/obituaries/10bolin.html.
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