Jane Bolin has lived many firsts.She was the first African American woman to graduate from Yale Law School, in 1931.

She was the first African American woman to be named assistant corporate counsel for the City of New York, in 1937.

And when she was appointed to the Domestic Relations Court (now the Family Court of New York) in 1939, Jane Bolin became the first female African American judge in the nation.

She held that post for 40 years, until mandatory retirement age forced her to step down.

A barrier-breaker, she also was a crusader. In her role as judge, she pushed for changes, making sure the assignment of probation officers was done without regard for race or religion, and making sure childcare agencies that received public funds did not refuse service to children based on race or ethnicity.

“Her talents and good heart,” said New York Mayor Fiorello La Guardia, the man who first appointed her to the judgeship, were “devoted entirely to the public good.”

‘Saddened and maddened’
Born April 11, 1908, in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., Jane Matilda Bolin was the youngest of Gaius C. and Matilda Bolin’s four children. Gaius Bolin, an attorney himself, also was a first ý the first African American graduate of Williams College.

Jane Bolin’s mother died when Bolin was 8 years old. She spent a lot of time, subsequently, in her father’s law office after school. “Those leather-bound books just intrigued me,” she told one writer.

She was one of two African American students at Wellesley College, where, in 1928, she graduated in the top 20 of her class. Years later, she wrote about the ostracism she felt at that school.

I am saddened and maddened even nearly half a century later … (M)y college days for the most part evoke sad and lonely personal memories. … I report my memories honestly because this racism too is part of Wellesley’s history and should be recounted fully, if only as a benighted pattern to which determinedly it will never return and, also, as a measure of its progress.

At Yale, she was one of only three women in her class, and the only African American. After Yale, she clerked with her father, then married and moved to New York to begin her own law practice.

It was there that Mayor La Guardia appointed her as a family-court judge. La Guardia described Bolin as “gentleness personified with the weak and unhappy (and) stern and unrelenting with the wicked and wrongdoer.”

Bolin had one son, Yorke Bolin Mizelle, born in 1941. Her husband died two years later. She remarried in 1950.

Following retirement in the late 1970s, Bolin volunteered in the New York City Public Schools system and reviewed disciplinary cases for the New York State Board of Regents.

She has held local and national posts in many high-profile organizations, including the Urban League and the NAACP. Bolin also has honorary degrees from several universities.Bolin was an activist for children’s rights and education. She served on the board of the Child Welfare League. She received honorary degrees from Tuskeegee Institute, Williams College, Hampton University, Western College for Women and Morgan State University.

She retired in 1979 and served on the New York State Board of Regents. She died in Queens, and was survived by her son.

But instead of being a name most people know, Jane Bolin instead is the answer to an online trivia quiz, question No. 5, listed with Maxine Waters and Margaret Walker.
Jane Bolin, from the Harmon Collection at the US National Portrait Gallery:
Jane Bolin 1942.jpg
Judge Jane Bolin (photograph dated 1942), first black female to occupy a court bench.



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  1. Excellent post! Love hearing about these historical figures – largely left out of our history books.

    Thanks for continuing the African tradition of passing down our stories.

  2. Lynn and Alan Fullshire; Leslie Wherry

    A wonderful post. Judge Boline needs to widely known as a piioneer of racial, women’s and children’s rights.

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