During Women’s History Month, DiversityInc is honoring a series of woman innovators and history makers like Jane Bolin, who are often overlooked in mainstream media coverage and history books. Check back throughout March to learn about more important figures.
Born: April 11, 1908, Poughkeepsie, New York
Died: Jan. 8, 2007, Queens, New York
Best known for: Becoming the first Black woman judge in the country.
Jane Bolin was the first Black woman to become a judge in the United States. She was an attorney served on New York’s Family Court for 40 years and dedicated her career to fighting against racial discrimination in the court system and advocating for children — especially children of color — whose cases she often presided over.
Bolin was born in Poughkeepsie, New York in 1908 to an interracial couple. Her mother, Matilda Ingram Emery was white and her father, Gaius C. Bolin was Black. Bolin’s father was an attorney who headed the Dutchess County Bar Association, had his own practice and was a founding member of a local NAACP chapter. He had also been the first Black graduate of Williams College. Bolin’s mother died when she was a child, so she was raised primarily by her father.
Bolin enrolled at Wellesley College, a prestigious women’s liberal arts institution in Massachusetts. She was one of two Black freshmen at the school and reportedly faced so much discrimination that she and the other Black student opted to move off campus. Still, Bolin graduated in 1928 as one of the top students in her class.
She knew she wanted to become an attorney despite a guidance counselor at her school telling her there was “little opportunity for women in law and absolutely none for a ‘colored one.’” At first, even her father was wary, although he soon offered moral and financial support to her endeavors.
Bolin was accepted into Yale Law School and became the first Black woman to earn a law degree from the university in 1931. She later became the first Black woman to join the New York City Bar Association. Bolin began her career apprenticing under her father and was rejected by local law firms because of her gender. She ended up practicing law with her first husband, Ralph E. Mizelle, who later died in 1943.
In 1937, Bolin was appointed as assistant corporate council of New York City — the first Black woman to hold the position. At the World’s Fair in 1939, she was appointed as a judge of the Domestic Relations Court (now known as Family Court) by the mayor of New York City at the time, Fiorello La Guardia.
In an interview with The New York World-Telegram the day after she was appointed, she said she hoped to embody “a broad sympathy for human suffering,” adding, “I’ll see enough of it.”
Due to the sensitive nature of domestic disputes, she did.
In her position, Bolin led actions to break down segregation and other racial barriers in the system. She also required childcare agencies that got public funding to accept children of all races and ethnicities, as well as ended the practice of assigning probation officers to people based on their race. She chose not to wear judge’s robes during trials to make children feel more comfortable.
Bolin was reappointed to her seat by three more mayors and ended up serving in the position for 40 years. She stepped down from her position in 1978 only because she reached the mandatory retirement age of 70. But her work didn’t end after retirement: She went on to volunteer as a tutor in New York City’s public schools and served as a consultant on the New York State Board of Regents.
Bolin died on Jan. 8, 2007 at the age of 98. She was a trailblazer, but in a 1993 interview with The New York Times, she said she wasn’t too attached to the “first” accolades.
“Everyone else makes a fuss about it, but I didn’t think about it, and I still don’t,” Bolin said. “I wasn’t concerned about first, second or last. My work was my primary concern.”