Profiles in Black History: Jane Bolin

Posted by on Feb 26, 2021 in People and Culture

This week, btw continues to celebrate Black History Month by focusing on the lives and accomplishments of African Americans who may not have received as much recognition as they deserve. Jane Bolin was the first African American judge in the United States. Here, btw takes a closer look at her life and her many achievements.

Who Was Jane Bolin?

Jane Matilda Bolin was born on April 11, 1908, in Poughkeepsie, New York, to an African American father and a white mother. Her mother passed away when Bolin was still a child. Her father, who was the first African American graduate of Williams College, owned his own legal practice and led the Dutchess County Bar Association. Bolin was an excellent student and, after high school, enrolled in Wellesley College. Despite racial discrimination, she graduated in 1928 as one of the top twenty students in her class. Bolin then attended Yale Law School, where she was one of only three women in her class and the only African American student. She became the school’s first African American female graduate in 1931.

legal books and scales of justice
Credit: Zolnierek/Shutterstock

After Yale, Bolin returned home to work in her father’s law practice. She also married another attorney, Ralph E. Mizelle, in 1933. During this time, she continued to practice law and also campaigned unsuccessfully for a state assembly seat as a Republican. On July 22, 1939, she was sworn in as a judge at the World’s Fair by New York Mayor Fiorello La Guardia. The swearing-in was a surprise to her, and with it, she became the first African American female judge in the United States. She was 31 years old.

An Advocate for Families

Bolin served on New York’s Family Court for four decades, gaining a reputation as a strong advocate for children and families. She was known for not wearing traditional judicial robes so that the children she encountered would feel more comfortable. She also fought to change racist policies within the justice system, such as the fact that probation officers were given assignments based on their race. Bolin worked with First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt to support the Wiltwyck School, a racially-integrated treatment center for delinquent boys. At the same time, Bolin served on the boards of several organizations, such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the New York Urban League. Moreover, after her first husband died in 1943, she accomplished all of this while raising their son Yorke alone, as a single mother.

A Lifetime of Service

Bolin retired from the bench at 70 years old, after serving four consecutive ten-year terms. After that, she continued to serve her community as a school volunteer and a member of the New York State Board of Regents. She died on January 8, 2007, at the age of 98, in Queens, New York.

Dig Deeper Create an annotated time line of key events in Jane Bolin’s life, both personally and professionally.