By Gail Drake
In honor of women’s history month:
She made headlines as the “lady judge” with accounts of her regal demeanor, stylish wardrobe and pearls. Before long, she made news with changes she initiated to bring integration into the New York family court system. And she served tirelessly with distinction on the bench for 40 years.
She was a “lady of firsts.” The first black female graduate of Yale Law School. The first black woman to join the New York City Bar Association, and the first employed by the New York City Law Department. And she became renowned when she was sworn in as the first black woman judge in the U.S.
Jane Matilda Bolin was a biracial child born in 1908 in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., to Gaius C. Bolin, a respected black attorney, and Matilda Emory Bolin, a white Englishwoman. Loss came early to Jane when her mother died when she was 8 years old. Gaius Bolin practiced law in Dutchess County, N.Y., for 50 years and was the first black president of the Dutchess County Bar Association. The youngest of four, young Jane grew up fascinated with her father’s multiple shelves of leather-bound law books. And she also was profoundly affected by other publications in her father’s law office, The Crisis, the official magazine for the N.A.A.C.P.
“I was horrified and transfixed by pictures and news stories of lynching and other atrocities against blacks solely because of their race,” she later recounted in a letter. “It is easy to imagine how a young, protected child who sees portrayals of brutality is forever scarred and becomes determined to contribute in her own small way to social justice.”
Those shocking portraits propelled young Jane to overcome many obstacles, including racial discrimination, that she encountered. She was denied enrollment at Vassar College because of her race. She then enrolled at Wellesley College in Massachusetts as one of only two black freshmen. Socially rejected by their classmates, the two girls shared a room off campus. Bolin graduated in 1928 as a Wellesley scholar in the top 20 of her class, but with unhappy memories of her alma mater.
“My college days for the most part evoke sad and lonely personal memories,” she wrote.
When Bolin discussed a law career with a college guidance counselor, she was advised that black women had little chance. Bolin’s father also discouraged her, saying “lawyers had to deal with the most unpleasant and sometimes the grossest kind of human behavior.” He didn’t know she had already enrolled at Yale Law School – as the only black student and one of three women.
After graduating from Yale in 1931, Bolin first practiced law with her father, then her husband, attorney Ralph Mizelle. She decided to run for the New York State Assembly as a Republican candidate in 1936 but lost. She then applied for a position in the New York City counsel’s office and was assigned to the Domestic Relations Court (later renamed Family Court). On July 22, 1939, she was notified that NYC Mayor Fiorella La Guardia wanted to see her at the New York World’s Fair that had just opened. Fearing she was going to be reprimanded, she was startled to learn she was being sworn in as a judge of the Domestic Relations Court.
Her cases included homicides and crimes committed by juveniles, child support, battered spouses, neglected children, adoptions and paternity suits. She often declined to wear judicial robes so the children would feel more comfortable.
“When I came in, the one or two black probation officers handled only black families. I had that changed,” she wrote. She also required that publicly funded child care agencies accept children regardless of their ethnic background and promoted racially integrated child services in the multicultural population of New York City.
“Families and children are so important to our society, and to dedicate your life to trying to improve their lives is completely satisfying,” she wrote.
She took a leave of absence to raise her son until her husband died. She married the Rev. Walter Offutt Jr. in 1943 and continued to adjudicate family court cases until mandatory retirement at age 70. Jane Bolin was a lady of firsts who left a rich legacy of service to children.