Jane Bolin was the first African-American woman to earn a degree from the prestigious Yale Law School on her way to becoming the nation’s first woman to serve as a judge. For 40 years, Judge Bolin presided over what is now known today in New York as the Family Court.
Jane Matilda Bolin was born April 11, 1908 in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. Her father, lawyer Gaius Bolin, was the first Black student to attend Williams College. Her mother, Matilda Ingram Emery, was a British white woman.
As a child, Bolin was known as an excellent student but still endured racism despite her parents’ privileged background. It was around this period Bolin learned about lynching and widespread racism across the Deep South. Things worsened for her personally as she attended Wellesley College. She was just one of two Black students at the time, and the experience was isolating.
Bolin admired her father’s work, and wanted to follow in his footsteps. An adviser warned Bolin away from pursuing a law degree from Yale Law School due to her race and gender. Despite the racist and sexist barriers, Bolin powered her way through and earned her law degree in 1931 at just 23 years of age. The following year, Bolin aced her bar exam.
Bolin began working as an attorney with her father’s practice and then married fellow attorney Ralph Mizelle in 1933. After relocating to New York and working as the first Black woman to serve as assistant corporate counsel in the city, Bolin’s life would change forever on July 22, 1939.
According to accounts, Bolin was unaware that then-Mayor Fiorello La Guardia would appoint her to the judge’s bench for the Domestic Relations Court at the New York’s World Fair. Bolin was a tireless judge, and her appointment was renewed three times before she was forced to retire at age 70, although she wanted to keep working.
Bolin fought to integrate child services, promote diversity in the hire of probation officers, and worked diligently for children’s rights. After her retirement, she worked as a reading instructor in New York public schools and served on the New York State Board of Regents. She was also a NAACP and National Urban League board member.
Bolin and her first husband had one son, Yorke Mizelle. After the death of her husband in 1943, she married Walter Offutt Jr. in 1950.
Bolin passed in 2007 at the age of 98. in 2011, a biography was released titled Daughter of the Empire State: The Life of Judge Jane Bolin by Jacqueline A. McLeod.