Jane Bolin, first black woman judge in the United States

Judge Jane Bolin in 1942.

Jane Matilda Bolin was the first black woman to graduate from Yale Law School, the first to join the New York City Bar Association and the first to join the New York City Law Department. She became the first black woman to serve as a judge in the United States when she was sworn into the bench of the New York City Domestic Relations Court in 1939.

Jane Matilda Bolin was born on April 11, 1908 in Poughkeepsie, New York. She was the youngest of four children. Her father, Gaius C. Bolin, was a lawyer and the first black person to graduate from Williams College, and her mother, Matilda Ingram Emery, was an immigrant from the British Isles who died when Bolin was 8 years old. Bolin’s father practiced law in Dutchess County for fifty years and was the first black president of the Dutchess County Bar Association.

As the child of an interracial couple, Bolin was subject to discrimination in Poughkeepsie; she would occasionally be denied service at businesses. Bolin was influenced as a child by articles and pictures of the extrajudicial hanging of black southerners in The Crisis, the official magazine of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

After attending high school in Poughkeepsie, Bolin was prevented from enrolling at Vassar College as it did not accept black students at that time. At 16 years old, she enrolled at Wellesley College in Massachusetts where she was one of only two black freshmen. Having been socially rejected by the white students, she and the only other black student decided to live off campus together. A career adviser at Wellesley College tried to discourage her from applying to Yale Law School due to her race and gender. She graduated in 1928 in the top 20 in her class, and enrolled at Yale Law School where she was the only black student, and one of only three women. She became the first black woman to receive a law degree from Yale in 1931 and passed the New York state bar examination in 1932.

She practiced with her father in Poughkeepsie for a short period before accepting a job with the New York City Corporation Counsel’s office. She married attorney Ralph E. Mizelle in 1933, with whom she practiced law in New York City. Mizelle would go on to become a member of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Black Cabinet before dying in 1943. Bolin subsequently remarried Walter P. Offutt, Jr., a minister who would die in 1974. Bolin ran unsuccessfully for the New York State Assembly as a Republican candidate in 1936. Despite the loss, securing the Republican candidacy boosted her reputation in New York politics.

On July 22, 1939, at the New York World’s Fair, Mayor of New York City Fiorello La Guardia appointed 31-year-old Bolin as a judge of the Domestic Relations Court. For twenty years, she was the only black female judge in the country. She remained a judge of the court, renamed the Family Court in 1962, for 40 years, with her appointment being renewed three times, until she was required to retire aged 70. She worked to encourage racially integrated child services, ensuring that probation officers were assigned without regard to race or religion, and publicly funded childcare agencies accepted children without regard to ethnic background.

Bolin was an activist for children’s rights and education. She was a legal advisor to the National Council of Negro Women. She served on the boards of the NAACP, the National Urban League  and the Child Welfare League. Jane Bolin died at age 98 on January 8, 2007.

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