Bolin, Jane Matilda
Although she never cared to think in these terms, Jane Bolin would often have her name followed with the descriptive, "first black woman to…." In her mind, she was simply following her life's path, pursuing goals in a profession she cared for deeply, not unlike any other man or woman, black or white. Still, the facts are undeniable that part of Bolin's life path involved opening doors that had been, until her arrival, closed to African-American women and so the description, while not necessarily welcome, is accurate. Jane Bolin was the first black woman to graduate from Yale Law School, the first black woman to work as corporate counsel for the city of New York, the first black woman to be admitted to the Bar Association of the City of New York and most significantly, the first black woman judge in the United States. "Everyone else makes a fuss about it, but I didn't think about it, and I still don't," she told David Margolick of the New York Times in 1993. "I wasn't concerned about first, second or last. My work was my primary concern."
Determined to Be a Lawyer
Born Jane Matilda Bolin on April 11, 1908, in Pough-keepsie, New York, she was the youngest of four children born to Gaius C. Bolin, a lawyer and first black graduate of Williams College, and Matilda Ingram Bolin, a white Englishwoman. Her mother had become ill when Bolin was young and died when she was eight years old. As a single parent her father devoted a great deal of time and energy to his children while simultaneously running his own small law practice in Pough-keepsie. It was in her father's office with the rows and rows of law books, that Bolin, an avid reader and excellent student, first thought of becoming a lawyer.
A bright student, Bolin graduated from Poughkeepsie High School at age 15. Bolin began attending Wellesley College in 1924, one of two black women to enter that year. She later recalled her life at Wellesley as a lonely time where she was ignored socially and received little encouragement from the faculty. As a senior, when she told her adviser about her plans to become a lawyer, she was sternly instructed to think of something else. There was no future for a black woman as a lawyer, she was told. Upon graduating in 1928 Bolin was named a "Wellesley Scholar" a distinction given to the top 20 women in their class. Bolin's experience at Wellesley grated on her. In an essay she wrote in 1974 for a Wellesley publication, she candidly explained: "I am saddened and maddened even nearly half a century later to recall many of my Wellesley experiences but my college days for the most part evoke sad and lonely personal memories. These experiences perhaps were partly responsible for my lifelong interest in the social problems, poverty and racial discrimination rampant in our country," as quoted on the Wellesley College Web site.
In sharp contrast to her adviser at Wellesley, Bolin's father knew his daughter could become a lawyer—he simply did not want her to. "He was very opposed to the idea at first," Bolin recalled to Judy Klemesrud of the New York Times. "He assumed I'd be a schoolteacher. He didn't think that women should hear the unpleasant things that lawyers have to hear." Bolin so feared her father's disapproval that she did not tell him her plans until she had already interviewed and was accepted by Yale Law School. With her father's reluctant blessing, Bolin went through the school and graduated in 1931, the first black woman to do so.
Began Pioneering Career
With law degree in hand Bolin affixed her name to the front door of her father's Poughkeepsie practice until 1933 when her marriage to fellow lawyer, Ralph E. Mizelle took her to New York. The couple practiced law together until 1937 when Bolin applied for a position in the Office of the Corporation Counsel of the City of New York, the city's law office. Although initially dismissed during her interview for the position by an assistant, Corporation Counsel Paul Windels walked in the office and hired her on the spot, giving Bolin the distinction as the first black woman to become an Assistant Corporation Counsel. In this role Bolin was assigned to the Domestic Relations Court where she represented petitioners who could not afford their own lawyer.
Bolin had held the position of Assistant Corporation Counsel for two years when she was summoned by the office of New York's mayor, Fiorello LaGuardia, to meet the mayor at the New York City building of the World's Fair which had just opened. Concerned that someone had complained about her performance in the Corporation Counsel's office and the mayor was going to reprimand her, Bolin persuaded her husband to accompany her to the meeting. Her concern turned to surprise which then turned to numbness when she learned Mayor LaGuardia's intent was swear her in as a judge—the first black woman judge in the United States. The swearing in took place on a Saturday and Bolin took her place on the bench the following Monday. It would be a position she would hold for the next 40 years.
Her early years as a judge tested her mettle, for she had to balance family life with her professional duties. Two years after Bolin gave birth to her son, Yorke Bolin Mizelle, in 1941, her husband died. She remained a widow until remarrying in 1950. Of those seven years raising her son as a single parent and pursuing a full-time career, Bolin remarked "I don't think I shortchanged anybody but myself. I did not get all the sleep I needed…. I felt my first obligation was to my child," according to the American Bar Association Web site. She followed the example set by her own father, who had lavished her with devotion and support as a child. She remembered her time as a single parent and widow as a period when she gained a true appreciation for her father's sacrifices in support of his children, according to the Poughkeepsie Journal. Her second marriage to Walter P. Offutt, Jr., a clergyman, lasted until he passed away in 1974 from lymphoma.
Bolin's efforts to provide a loving family life for her own son and husband were reinforced by her court duties, which gave her deep insight into the social affects of troubled family life. She was assigned to the Domestic Relations Court, which in 1962 became known as the Family Court of the State of New York. Her position gave Bolin a front row seat to virtually every aspect of legal trouble that could engage a New York family from battered spouses and neglected children to paternity suits and, increasingly over her 40-year career, homicides committed by juveniles. "We always had homicides, but not in the numbers we have today," Bolin told Klemesrud of the New York Times at the time of her retirement. "I've never seen anything like this, the extent of this violence, never." Adding, "Sometimes, from the bench, I ask the children, 'Why, why, why?,' and I never get a satisfactory answer. They look at you, they stare at you, and they don't say anything."
At a Glance …
Born Jane Matilda Bolin on April 11, 1908, in Poughkeepsie, NY; died on January 8, 2007, in New York, NY; youngest daughter of Matilda Ingram Emery and Gaius C. Bolin (a lawyer); married Ralph E. Mizelle (a lawyer), 1933 (died, 1943); married Walter P. Offutt, Jr. (a clergyman), 1950 (died, 1974); children: Yorke Mizelle. Education: Wellesley College, BA, 1928; Yale Law School, JD, 1931.
Career: Admitted to New York State Bar, 1932; private practice lawyer, 1932–37; Office of the Corporation Counsel of the City of New York, Assistant Corporation Counsel, 1937–39; Domestic Relations Court (became know as Family Court of the State of New York in 1962), justice, 1939–78; New York State Board of Regents, Regents Review Committee member, 1979–?.
Memberships: Harlem Lawyers Association, Association of the Bar of the City of New York, National Bar Association, New York State Bar Association; New York Association of Family Court Judges. Served on boards of NAACP, New York Urban League, Dalton School, Wiltwyck School, Child Welfare League.
Awards: Honorary degrees from Morgan State College, Tuskegee Institute, Hampton Institute, Western College for Women, Williams College; Corporation Counsel's Award for Distinguished Service, 1993.
Bolin's vision extended far beyond the social affects of family life, however. As a justice Bolin determined to bring about changes to the way things were handled in the New York legal bureaucracy with regard to race and ethnicity. One change was the assignment of probation officers to cases without to race or religion. "When I came in, the one or two black probation officers handled only black families," she recalled to Klemesrud. "I had that changed." A second change was ensuring private childcare agencies that received public funding would accept children regardless of ethnic background. "They used to put a big N or PR on the front of every petition, to indicate if the family was black or Puerto Rican," she told Klemesrud. Bolin had that changed as well.
Possessed Tireless Passion for Work
In addition to her work on the bench, Bolin served on the boards of many agencies and organizations including the Child Welfare League, the National Board of the NAACP, the New York Urban League, the Dalton School, and Wiltwyck School for Boys, which she helped found with Eleanor Roosevelt and others. All activities that paralleled a lifetime of professional work designed to help people, a passion for which she never tired.
When Bolin reached the mandatory retirement age of 70 in 1978, she was forced to step down from the bench. She was very much opposed to the idea. Though she left the bench, Bolin remained active. She became a member of the Regents Review Committee of for the New York State Board of Regents where she reviewed disciplinary cases. She also tutored New York public school children in math and reading during her retirement, and worked as a family law consultant. "I've always done the kind of work I like," she admitted to Klemesrud. "I don't want to sound trite, but families and children are so important to our society, and to dedicate your life to trying to improve their lives is completely satisfying." Bolin died in New York on January 8, 2007. She was 98 years old.
Thompson, Kathleen, and Hilary Mac Austin, The Face of Our Past, Indiana University Press, 1999.
Chicago Tribune, January 14, 2007, p. 6.
Jet, July 28, 1997, p. 19; July 27, 1998, p. 19.
New York Times, April 8, 1937, p. A-3; July 23, 1939, p. A-7; April 14, 1943, p. A-24; December 8, 1978, p. A-22; May 14, 1993, p. B-8.
Poughkeepsie Journal, January 13, 2007, p. B1.
"Person of the Week: Jane Bolin," Wellesley College, www.wellesley.edu/Anniversary/bolin.html (February 6, 2007).
Additional information for this profile was obtained from the Rare Books and Manuscripts division of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.
Bolin, Jane Matilda
BOLIN, JANE MATILDA
Bolin was born April 11, 1908, in Poughkeepsie, New York, to Gaius C. Bolin and Matilda Emery Bolin. Her father, who was born to a Native American mother and a black father, was the first African American graduate of Williams College. He went on to become a lawyer and practiced law in Poughkeepsie for more than 50 years. Bolin's mother was born in England and immigrated to the United States with her parents.
Bolin was raised in a middle-class family. She attended public elementary and secondary schools. After graduation from high school she entered Wellesley College and soon was named a Wellesley scholar, one of the top 20 women in her class. She received her bachelor of arts degree, with honors, in 1928.
Shortly after her graduation from college Bolin announced her intention to attend Yale Law School. Her father was at first opposed to the idea because he felt that the law was a profession unsuited to women. He let his daughter know he would prefer her to pursue teaching, but she was determined to become a lawyer. Bolin graduated from Yale Law School in 1931, the first African American woman to do so.
Bolin was admitted to the New York bar in 1932 and began her legal career with her father and brother's law firm in Poughkeepsie. In 1933 she married Ralph E. Mizelle, also an attorney, and they settled in New York City.
Bolin's judicial career commenced just a few years after she and her husband began practicing law together. On April 7, 1937, she was named assistant corporate counsel in New York City's law department. She served two years in that position before being summoned, to her complete surprise, to the office of Mayor Fiorello La Guardia. On July 22, 1939, La Guardia appointed Bolin justice of the Domestic Relations Court of the City of New York (later called the family court), making her the first black woman judge in the United States. She presided over family court cases for four consecutive ten-year terms, until she reached the mandatory retirement age of 70.
In her many years on the bench Bolin saw the full spectrum of domestic cases: serious crimes, including homicides, committed by juveniles; nonpayment of family support; spouse battering; child neglect; lack of supervision for children; adoption; and paternity. Upon her retirement in 1978 she noted that during her years as a judge, she had viewed a steady increase in violent behavior among young people. Asked if she could suggest solutions to the problem, Bolin responded that the answers were very complex and that she could not accept the "easy answers" psychiatrists and social workers were handing out, "saying it's because of the wars … or the violent programs on television"
From the beginning of her career Bolin was determined to fight racial prejudice in any way she could. She worked to bring about changes in the way probation officers were assigned to cases in family court. When she became a judge black probation officers were assigned exclusively to cases involving black families; through Bolin's efforts, probation officers were eventually assigned without regard to race or religion. She also instituted a requirement that private social service agencies receiving public funds accept children without regard to ethnic background. "They used to put a big N or PR on the front of every [file], to indicate if the family was black or Puerto Rican," she recalled, because the agencies were segregated.
Bolin has been described as a militant, but quiet, fighter for justice. She earned a reputation as a courageous, no-nonsense, hard worker who never shirked an assignment. In addition to being a committed professional, Bolin served on the boards of a number of organizations: the New York Urban League, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (naacp) and its New York chapter, the Harlem Tuberculosis Committee, the legislative committee of the United Neighborhood Houses, the Wiltwick School for Boys, the Dalton School, and the Harlem Lawyers' Association. She was a member of the Committee on Children of New York City, the Scholarship Service and Fund for Negro Students, and the Committee against Discrimination in Housing.
Bolin and her first husband had one child, Yorke Bolin Mizelle, who was born in 1941 and
became a New York businessman. Asked how she combined motherhood, community activities, and a high-pressure career, Bolin said, "I didn't get all the sleep I needed, and I didn't get to travel as much as I would have liked, because I felt my first obligation was to my child." Bolin's first husband died in 1943. In 1950, she married Walter P. Offutt Jr., a minister, who died in 1974.
"I'd rather see if i can help a child than settle an argument between adults over money."
In recognition of her many accomplishments and contributions to the field of family law, Bolin has received many awards, including honorary doctor of law degrees from Morgan State University, Western College for Women, Tuskegee University, Hampton University, and Williams College. However, asked to recount her
most memorable experience, she did not speak of her many achievements. Rather, she told the story of a child who was in trouble and whose mother asked Bolin to send the child to the same institution where she had spent some time. When Bolin said she preferred to help the mother keep her child at home, the woman told her the institution had helped her, and she wanted the same help for her child. Bolin listened to the mother's reasoning and complied with her wishes.
After her retirement, Bolin worked as a family law consultant and did volunteer tutoring in math and reading with public school children.
Drachman, Virginia G. 1998. Sisters in Law: Women Lawyers in Modern American History. Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press.
Harrington, Mona. 1994. Women Lawyers: Rewriting the Rules. New York: Knopf.
Hine, Darlene C., ed. 1993. Black Women in America: An Historical Encyclopedia. Brooklyn: Carlson.
Smith, Jessie C., ed. 1992. Notable Black American Women. Detroit: Gale Research.