Jane Bolin was the first Black Woman in the United States to become a judge in 1939 when New York Mayor Fiorello La Guardia appointed her to the task. But that wasn’t her only “first.” She was the first black woman to graduate from Yale Law, the first to join the NYC Bar Association, and the first to work in the office of NYC’s Corporation Counsel.
Bolin was born in Northern New York in 1908 to a Black and Native American father and White and British mother and early on had to navigate life growing up in a world that condemned her parents marriage. Her father had a “first” of his own as he was the first black student at Williams College and he started his own law practice, so Bolin grew up around all of his books and cases.
She matriculated to Wellesley College and was one of two black women in her freshman class. The two of them where assigned as room mates in a family’s apartment off of the campus, just one of the episodes of racism she speaks of later that she encountered at the school. But she rose above it and became a Wellesley Scholar in 1928 when she graduated, which was given to the top 20 students in the class.
Even though she was the top of her class at Wellesley, when she spoke to the guidance counselor about pursuing a career in the law she was told that there were few opportunities for women in law and none at all for a black woman. Even her Father tried to dissuade her from the course of law because, according to the NY Times, lawyers had to work with “the most unpleasant and sometimes grossest kind of human behavior.” But he saw that Bolin was going to fight for the career that she wanted and so he threw his support behind her.
Jane Bolin attended Yale Law and was the first black woman to get her law degree. She had a series of firsts, as previously mentioned, she also became the first black woman to join the NYC Bar Association.
Bolin started working at her Father’s law office, she couldn’t find a job at other places because of her gender, and then started practicing law with her first husband, Ralph Mizelle, who died in 1943. In 1937, she was appointed Assistant Corporation Counsel to the City of New York, the first black woman hired for the job. And then in 1939, she became the first Black Judge when she was sworn in as a judge of Domestic Relations Court (now called Family Court) at the World’s Fair.
Bolin worked tirelessly as a judge to halt segregation and racism. She required child care agencies to accept children of all races and ethnicities when they acquired public funding. She also stopped the practice of assigning probation officers based on religion and race. She was a judge for 40 years and stepped down when she reached the mandatory retirement age of 70 in 1978.
She died on January 8, 2007 at the age of 98 and created a path through the legal system for others wanting to serve. She was an icon of hope and empowerment for women throughout her life.