Jane Bolin

Justice Jane Bolin [YLS 1931; first African American woman to serve as a judge in the U.S.], ca. 1942. Nitrate negative. Office of War Information Photograph Collection, Library of Congress

Judge Jane M. Bolin was the first black woman to graduate from Yale Law School, (LAW ‘31) and the nation’s first African American woman to be appointed a judge. In 1939. New York City Mayor Fiorello La Guardia appointed Bolin to serve in the Family Court of the city. Bolin served in that capacity for four decades. She distinguished herself on the bench by fighting against racial discrimination in the court system and advocating for children—especially children of color—whose cases she often presided over. In addition to her decades of service as a judge, Bolin also served on the boards of several organizations, including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the New York Urban League.

Born in Poughkeepsie, New York in 1908, Bolin was raised primarily by her father, Gaius Bolin, a leading African American attorney in Dutchess County, New York. Her mother, Matilda Emory Bolin, a white Englishwoman, died when Jane was 8 years old.

Bolin was introduced to matters of law and social justice at an early age in her home. She grew up fascinated by the leather-bound law books that lined her father’s book shelves. Gaius Bolin, who was the first Black graduate of Williams College, practiced law in Poughkeepsie, led the Dutchess County Bar Association, and was a founding member of a local NAACP chapter. He modeled a combination of academic acumen, legal proficiency, and dedication to protecting rights of Black Poughkeepsie residents that made a lasting impression on his daughter. After Jane Bolin graduated from Yale in 1931, when law firms discriminated against her based on her race and gender, she practiced law with her father in Poughkeepsie and with her then-husband, attorney Ralph Mizellec. In 1937, she was hired as the first black woman to serve as a New York City Assistant Corporation Counsel.

Fighting racial discrimination was an impulse that Jane Bolin inherited from her grandfather, as well as her father. In 1870, Abram Bolin, with other Hudson Valley residents, revived a crusade to establish a black college for New Yorkers, an effort that had failed decades before. The senior Bolin and his fellow residents had grown frustrated with segregated schools and racial hostility that Black students faced in Poughkeepsie and in other cities of Dutchess County, New York, as well as in institutions of higher education including Eastman Business College and Vassar College in Poughkeepsie. Although the effort to establish the black college was not realized, the endeavor of her grandfather and black Poughkeepsie residents was another familial model of social justice advocacy that influenced Jane Bolin.

Bolin enrolled at Wellesley College in Massachusetts (Class of 1928) where she encountered the kind of racial discrimination that Abram Bolin had tried to eliminate in her native Poughkeepsie decades before her birth. She and another student—the two Black girls in the student body—faced racial bias and indignities from the white students and administration. Due to racial bias, the girls found boarding accommodations off campus. In one instance, when Bolin confided to a Wellesley guidance counselor that she was interested in a law career, the counselor discouraged her advising that black women had little chance to succeed in the profession. Bolin graduated as a Wellesley scholar in the top 20 of her class, but with unhappy memories of her alma mater. Years later she recalled that “My college days for the most part evoke sad and lonely personal memories.” She further noted “bitterly” that no administrator, faculty member or student from Wellesley ever acknowledged her achievement as a lawyer and judge. In an interview with The New York World-Telegram the day after she was appointed to the New York family court bench, she said she hoped to embody “a broad sympathy for human suffering,” adding, “I’ll see enough of it.”

Bolin further commented that, “When I came in, the one or two black probation officers handled only black families. I had that changed.” She also required that publicly funded childcare agencies accept children regardless of their ethnic background and promoted racially integrated child services in the multicultural population of New York City. “Families and children are so important to our society, and to dedicate your life to trying to improve their lives is completely satisfying,” she wrote.

Jane Bolin died at age 98 on January 8, 2007. She is remembered for her pioneering academic achievements and the “broad sympathy for human suffering” she demonstrated as a judge, leading to lasting reforms to remove discriminatory racial policies of the court on behalf of children.

- Lisa A. Monroe, project manager, GLC at the MacMillan Center at Yale University


Albany-Herald, https://www.albanyherald.com

Diversity Inc., https://www.albanyherald.com

Dutchess County Historical Society, https://www.dchsny.org/bolins-on-race/

“Remembering Jane Bolin, the first African-American female judge in the U.S.,” New Haven Register, https://www.nhregister.com/opinion/article/Remembering-Jane-Bolin-the-fi…