In 2021, the Society is celebrating Black History Month every month, spending the year looking back at the impact of Black New Yorkers on the legal history of the state. This article is adapted from an article by David L. Goodwin that was first published in the Dutchess County Historical Society Yearbook. The article in full appears here.
Born and raised in Poughkeepsie, but with a career in the five boroughs of New York City, Jane Matilda Bolin (1908–2007) is best known for a particular “first” of groundbreaking magnitude. She holds the honor of being the first African American judge in the entire United States, joining the bench of New York City’s Domestic Relations Court in 1939. Her appointment by Mayor Fiorello La Guardia, which came as some surprise to Bolin herself — summoned with her husband to an audience with the mayor at the 1939 World’s Fair, she was not informed of the mayor’s intentions in advance — made “news around the world.”
About that news: in announcing this historical judgeship, some outlets hedged the call, if ever so slightly. The Chicago Defender, which “chronicled and catalyzed [the African American] community’s greatest accomplishments for nearly a century,” proudly announced that La Guardia had “smashed a precedent for the entire United States” because Bolin was “thought to be the first Race woman judge to be appointed in this country.” About two months later, the Defender had eliminated the qualifier, describing Judge Bolin as the “first Race woman to serve as a judge in the history of America.” And despite the shifting nature of historical inquiry, her title has held firm; on the sad occasion of her obituary, she was still, resolutely, “the first black woman in the United States to become a judge.”