On the path to becoming the first African-American woman judge in the United States, Jane Bolin earned the distinction of “first” several times.
Jane Bolin, the youngest daughter of Gaius C. Bolin and Matilda Bolin, was born on April 11, 1908, in Poughkeepsie, NY. Her father was a lawyer and the first African-American graduate of Williams College. Her mother died when Jane was 8 years old, and throughout her childhood she spent a great deal of time in her father’s law office. From that exposure, she became determined to become a lawyer herself.
She graduated from high school in Poughkeepsie, and entered Wellesley College in 1924, one of only two Black freshmen women. Her isolated life at Wellesley was made more difficult by the lack of encouragement she received from her professors. And, although she graduated in 1928 as a “Wellesley Scholar” (one of the top 20 students in her class), her advisor discouraged her from pursuing a legal career, on the grounds that there could be no future for an African-American woman attorney.
Even her father, who wished to shield her from the unpleasant side of the legal profession, opposed her interest in the law. He preferred the genteel life of a teacher for his bright young daughter. However, Jane Bolin applied and was accepted at Yale University Law School, and only then did she reveal her plans to her reluctant father, who gave her his guarded blessings. She matriculated at Yale and in 1931 became the first African-American woman to graduate from Yale’s law school.
She passed the bar exam in 1932 and practiced in her father’s firm during the first two years of her legal career. After her marriage to lawyer Ralph Mizelle in 1933, the couple moved to New York and practiced together, until Jane Bolin was hired to become the first African-American woman to serve as Assistant Corporation Counsel for the City of New York.
In 1939, Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia appointed the 31-year-old Jane Bolin to be Judge of the Domestic Relations Court (renamed the Family Court in 1962), where she served with distinction for 40 years. In her work as the first African-American woman judge, she viewed the many different kinds of legal trouble a family could experience, including spousal abuse and neglected children, as well as homicides committed by juveniles.
During her years on the bench, Judge Bolin brought “revolutionary” changes to New York’s legal bureaucracy. Among them were the assignment of probation officers to individuals without regard to race or religion, and the assurance that private childcare agencies that received public funding must accept children, regardless of their ethnic or racial backgrounds.
Judge Bolin’s only child, Yorke Bolin Mizelle, was born during her early years on the bench. Her husband died two years after her son’s birth, and she was a single parent until her remarriage seven years later. When questioned about her experience of balancing motherhood and a full-time professional career, she remarked, “I don’t think I short-changed anybody but myself. I did not get all the sleep I needed &I felt my first obligation was to my child.”
Judge Bolin retired, quite reluctantly, in 1979, after reaching mandatory retirement age, and went on to serve on the New York State Board of Regents, where she reviewed disciplinary cases.
She served on the National Board of the NAACP, as well as the boards of the National Urban League, the Child Welfare League and the Dalton School. With Eleanor Roosevelt, she helped re-establish the Wiltwyck School for Boys as a non-sectarian and interracial rehabilitative center for juveniles. Her lifetime of working to help people was recognized by many, including Morgan State University, Western College for Women, Tuskeegee Institute, Hampton University and Williams College, from which she received honorary degrees.
Summing up her life’s work, Judge Bolin stated, “I’ve always done the kind of work that I like & families and children are so important to our society, and to dedicate your life to trying to improve their lives is completely satisfying.”