Judge Jane Bolin

This article was written by David L. Goodwin. It was first published in the Dutchess County Historical Society Yearbook. David is a Staff Attorney at Appellate Advocates. He is a co-chair of the Young Lawyers Committee of The Historical Society of the New York Courts.

Photo: Judge Jane Bolin

Dear Jane,

You’re one of the reasons the courts for children are a greater hope than some people say. You’re one of the dedicated ones.[1]

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.”[2]

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,”[3] 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.”[4] 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.”[5] 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.”[6]

Judge Bolin served with distinction, reappointed to the bench by three different mayors — O’Dwyer in 1949 (although not without some politicking), Wagner in 1959, and Lindsay in 1969[7] — while weathering the reorganization of the Domestic Relations Court into the Family Court in 1962.[8] She retired in 1979, but only reluctantly; in an interview conducted when Judge Bolin was in her early 80s, she made clear that, were it up to her, she would still be serving on the Family Court.[9]

Judgeship was not Jane Bolin’s only first, or even her first first of comparable magnitude. Among her tally, she was the first black woman to graduate from Yale Law School, to join the New York City Bar, and to work in the office of the City’s Corporation Counsel.[10] She followed in the footsteps of other notable trailblazers, such as Charlotte E. Ray, who became the first African-American woman lawyer in 1872[11]; Edwin Archer Randolph, the first African American to graduate from Yale Law School (and also the first admitted to the Connecticut bar)[12]; and Florence Allen, the first woman named to a United States Court of Appeals.[13] In turn, Judge Bolin paved the way for still other firsts. As Justice L. Priscilla Hall would observe in 1996, upon the retirement of the first African-American woman appointed to the Appellate Term of the New York State Supreme Court:

The connection between black women judges in New York City, New York State and indeed these United States is immediate, current and direct.  . . . It is so recent that Jane Matilda Bolin, the first African-American woman judge in the United States, appointed in 1939, still lives. It is so immediate that Constance Baker Motley, the first African-American woman named to the federal judiciary, still sits, senior status, on the bench. It is so current the first black woman to be appointed a judge on the United States Court of Appeals, Amalya L. Kearse, presides daily.[14]

Formative Years: Roots in Poughkeepsie, Branches Beyond

Judge Bolin’s family had deep roots in Poughkeepsie and broader Dutchess County, a history stretching back to the earliest African-American presence in the region, which dates from the seventeenth century.[15] Her grandfather was born in Dover Plains[16]; her father, Gaius Bolin, remained in Dutchess County and was himself a path-breaking figure. Gaius was the first African-American graduate of Williams College[17]—an achievement honored by a Fellowship program founded on the centennial of his admission.[18] He practiced law in Dutchess County for over 50 years, becoming the first African-American president of the Dutchess County Bar Association at 80 years old.[19] Jane Bolin’s mother, Matilda, was a Protestant immigrant from Northern Island,[20] but while interracial marriage was not necessarily unusual in the Poughkeepsie of the time, Jane nevertheless became aware early in her childhood that she was “different.”[21]

Bolin’s early years in Poughkeepsie, a “comfortable”[22] upbringing, were marked by that push and pull. She received high marks in school,[23] and formed a close bond with her Poughkeepsie high-school English teacher, Lucy Jackson, who was Bolin’s able guide to the world of literature.[24] But Poughkeepsie, while not segregated under law, was no “racial utopia.”[25] She would also remember the stares of her neighbors,[26] and being refused service as a beauty salon.[27]

After Bolin graduated from high school in 1924,[28] Vassar might have seemed an obvious choice for higher education. It was nearby, after all, a few blocks from the family home; and father Gaius, who had “very definite ideas about how young men and women should conduct themselves,”[29] could reasonably be expected to prefer that his youngest child, a daughter, stay close to home. But even if Vassar would have been appealing to Bolin — its proximity to home, undoubtedly a plus factor for her father, was not quite as appealing to her[30] — it was not a realistic option. Under its “unofficial policies” of the time, Vassar did not accept African-American students.[31] Thus, in 1924, at age 16, Bolin became one of two African-American freshmen at Wellesley college — almost a world away in Massachusetts.

Jane Bolin at College; Reflections on Wellesley; Yale Law School

But college at Wellesley turned out to be trying. While the school had graduated its first African-American woman almost forty years before Bolin enrolled,[32] its racial politics proved only a half-measure improvement on Vassar’s. Bolin would find Wellesley to be profoundly alienating, both explicitly and implicitly — especially for someone who had grown up in the reasonably open climate of Poughkeepsie.[33] For instance, she was asked to play Aunt Jemima in a school skit,[34] and was functionally excluded from campus social activities.[35] She graduated among the top 20 students in the class, but despite her academic achievements was discouraged by her guidance counselor from applying to law school.[36]

Throughout her life, Bolin’s relationship with her alma mater remained complex. While the school initially failed to acknowledge her historical appointment to the bench, changing times and changing attitudes transformed Wellesley. Its belated embrace of Bolin can be viewed almost as atonement.[37] Bolin was included in the school’s 1974 centennial, and in 1981 she was consulted by the school’s then-dean, Maud Chaplin, about increasing the number of African American faculty members.[38]

Bolin accepted this change of heart on her own terms, and with a characteristic objectivity. In a 1974 essay for Wellesley After Images, Bolin wrote that she was “saddened and maddened even nearly half a century later to recall many of my Wellesley experiences,” but credited this adversity as being “partly responsible for my lifelong interest in the social problems, poverty and racial discrimination rampant in our country.”[39] It was a public airing of the institution’s unfortunate recent past, in the hope that honest acknowledgment would demonstrate the “benighted pattern to which determinedly [the school] will never return and, also, as a measure of its progress.”[40]

Back to that “recent past”: after graduating college, Bolin defied the warnings of her guidance counselor and enrolled in Yale Law School. After an experience that echoed the isolation of Wellesley, she became its first female African-American graduate in 1931.[41]

Jane Bolin, The Lawyer, Embraces New York City

It might have been expected that Jane Bolin, the new lawyer, would return to the family homestead in Poughkeepsie. For that path, her older brother, Gaius Jr., provided the clear template. He had earlier attended law school in New York City, graduating in 1927 and returning to Dutchess County to practice with his father’s firm.[42] He became a well-respected attorney in his own right, and he wore the family name proudly. Justice Joseph Hawkins, a native of Poughkeepsie who served as a Supreme Court Justice for the Ninth Judicial District and later on the Appellate Division, would fondly recall both Gaius the elder and the younger in a 1978 letter to Judge Bolin, written on the occasion of their mutual retirement from the bench (hers compelled by law, his compelled by results at the polls). Gaius Jr. followed, Justice Hawkins observed, “in his father’s footsteps.”[43] Meanwhile, Jane Bolin’s sister Ivy was active in the Dutchess County branch of the NAACP, which she helped to found with her father.[44]

And Bolin did return home for a time, practicing briefly with her father after being admitted to the Second Department in 1932.[45] But she had met the man who would become her first husband, New York City lawyer Ralph Mizelle, during her first year at Yale.[46] She perhaps sensed also that, with Gaius Jr. having joined her father’s practice, she would have difficulty shaping her own identity in Dutchess County.[47] Thus, in 1932, Bolin left Poughkeepsie for New York City, practicing with Mizelle for five years before their careers diverged. He found a job at the Post Office Solicitor General’s office in Washington, D.C. (beginning a period of “commuter marriage”[48]) and she landed in the New York City Corporation Counsel’s office following an unsuccessful 1936 run for State Assembly on the Republican ticket.[49] As Assistant Corporation Counsel, Bolin appeared before the City’s Domestic Relations Court, presaging her appointment to the bench a few years later.[50]

Once she became a judge, there was no looking back. Dutchess County’s Jane M. Bolin was now firmly of New York City.

Judicial Career: Judging Across the Decades

In public and semipublic statements, Judge Bolin tended to eschew sentimentality when discussing her own achievements and her background in Dutchess County. Returning to Poughkeepsie in 1944, she decried the persistent segregation in city government and local services, which she called “fascist.”[51] But her departure was also cast in utilitarian terms. Staying in Poughkeepsie would not have brought “to fruition the aspirations and ambitions and dreams I have had from my childhood.”[52] Or, as she would later put it in a 1990 interview, Poughkeepsie was “too small”; “even to this day,” Bolin added, “I’m essentially a large city person.”[53]

Bolin was evidently content to categorize her time in Poughkeepsie as part of an origin story: foundational, perhaps, but altogether distant. This sometimes led her to downplay her connections with Dutchess County. In the late 1970s, she was contacted by a professor at Williams College for a project on her father. She readily replied, but cautioned, “[P]lease remember that I left Poughkeepsie when I was 16 and thereafter was home only during vacations. Consequently I was not really a part of that community.”[54] In this retelling, her brief period of practice with her father vanished altogether.

Her “firsts” often received a similar matter-of-fact treatment. She pushed back against the idea that her path was “courageous.” Pursuing law was “just . . . something that [she] wanted to do.”[55] On being the first African-American woman judge? Outside of being “embarrassed” by the lag between her appointment and that of the second African American woman judge, she “never thought of it. I had a job to do and that was—I never thought of it in terms of being the first or anything.”[56] On being the first African-American woman admitted to the New York City Bar, which required her sponsors to modify “he”s to “she”s and “him”s to “her”s on the application form?[57] She found “no special excitement” in it; rather, she explained, she was simply interested in using the City Bar’s extensive library, which compared favorably to the “small and inadequate” library in her courthouse.[58]

And, to a certain degree, Judge Bolin actively resisted the continued pursuit of credentials and prestige—an uncommon quality in the legal profession. She loved her work, after all, and could not see herself in any other position.[59]

One story, from around her 1949 troubled first reappointment to the bench, emphasizes this quality. Judge Bolin began to hear whispers of a possible appointment to the federal bench. This would have been a big change for Bolin, and would have yielded yet another “first.” African Americans were “virtually absent from the federal judiciary until the late 1970s”; the first African-American Article III federal judge was William Hastie, who was appointed to the Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit in 1949, but otherwise appointments were few and far between until the Carter administration.[60] An appointment in 1949 would have made her the first African-American woman to obtain an Article III federal judgeship, and it would also have provided a way out of city politics, at least in the long run. But in a letter to one such supporter, Judge Theodor Spaulding of Pennsylvania—who, somewhat later, would become the first African-American Pennsylvania appellate judge—she gently, but firmly, rejected such a move:

You were certainly kind and gracious to write me offering your assistance in the matter of a Federal judgeship. I deeply appreciate your offer and your thoughts. I do not know how my name ever got to be mentioned so frequently in connection with a Federal judgeship for I really am not interested in that position. I find the interest of my friends very flattering and heart-warming but I still am of the opinion that the greatest service I can render fellow human beings in a courtroom can be rendered in my present position.[61]

Judge Bolin’s modesty extended to those credentials already acquired. Upon stepping down from the bench, she eschewed the traditional self-celebratory retirement party, instead holding a symposium at NYU Law entitled “The Rights of Children – The Rights of Minorities.” Speaking at the event were Judge A. Leon Higginbotham of the Third Circuit and Yale’s Professor Thomas Emerson. In retirement proper, Bolin took a similar approach, remaining active and engaged — but very low profile — in a variety of positions that echoed her four-decade commitment to juvenile welfare and civic engagement.

Accolades and Honors from the Bench, Bar, and Community

Of course, neither Bolin’s first home nor her profession was obligated to mirror the judge’s air of professional detachment. Jane and Gaius Bolin Sr. are prominently featured in a Dutchess County Courthouse mural, a project brought to fruition by retired Court of Appeals Judge Albert Rosenblatt.[62] That the Poughkeepsie City School District Administration building has been renamed the Jane Bolin Administration building[63] might seem too modest at first glance, but the honor is, in fact, very well suited to its namesake’s sense of determination, reserve, and efficiency.

Bolin’s spiritual successors and peers on the bench saw no need to downplay her accomplishments. Judge Higginbotham of the Third Circuit once called her “Yale’s most illustrious graduate”[64]; Judge Constance Baker Motley, the first African-American woman appointed to the federal bench, called her “a role model . . . at a time when there were very few, if any, black women in the law.”[65] And in a letter written on the occasion of Judge Bolin’s 85th birthday, the then-new Chief Judge of New York State wrote:

When I was sworn in as Chief Judge of the State of New York exactly two weeks ago today, I spoke of the difficulties I had encountered finding a job as a woman lawyer back in 1963. I can only imagine the barriers that confronted you, which you so ably surmounted.  . . . I’d like to borrow your birthday to express my gratitude to you for hurdling the barriers and easing the way for all women lawyers and judges.[66]

Judge Judith Kaye had it exactly right. Jane Bolin may have been an unconventional first, content to do meaningful work quietly, competently, and with a minimum of fuss. But through the sheer fact of her example — no flair, no larger-than-life ambition, but good work done expertly by a dedicated public servant — Judge Bolin showed the strength of the subtle. Countless others followed in her stead. So while she herself may not have wanted a high profile, it is nonetheless nigh time for broader recognition of the many firsts, done well, that are indisputably hers and hers alone.

End Notes

[1] Mark A. McCloskey (chairman of the State of New York Youth Commission) to Jane M. Bolin, letter, March 16, 1955. Box 3, Jane M. Bolin Papers, 1943–1993, Rare Books and Manuscripts Division of the Schomberg Center for Research in Black Culture, New York Public Library.
[2] David Margolick, “In retrospect, father didn’t know best in the case of a daughter with a habit of making history,” At the Bar, New York Times, May 14, 1993, p. B8.
[3] Ethan Michaeli, The Defender: How the Legendary Black Newspaper Changed America (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016), p. ix.
[4] “Jane Bolin Begins Job as New York Justice,” The Chicago Defender, August 5, 1939, p. 2 (emphasis added).
[5] “A Typical Day in Court with Judge Jane Bolin,” The Chicago Defender, September. 30, 1939, p. 16.
[6] Douglas Martin, “Jane Bolin, the Country’s First Black Woman to Become a Judge, Is Dead at 98,” New York Times, January. 10, 2007.
[7] Jacqueline McLeod, “Jane Matilda Bolin: A Pioneer for Justice” (PhD diss., Michigan State University, 2002), pp. 100–104; see also “Judge Jane Bolin Sworn In,” New York Times, July 19, 1969, p. 23.
[8] See People v. Johnson, 20 N.Y.2d 220, 222 (1967) (briefly discussing the manner by which the court-system was organized in 1962).
[9] Jane M. Bolin, interview by Jean Rudd, together with Lionel Bolin (her nephew), June 4, 1990, p. 13, transcript, Box 1, Bolin Papers.
[10] Bolin interview, 1990; see also Jacqueline A. McLeod, Daughter of the Empire State: The Life of Judge Jane Bolin (University of Illinois Press 2011), p. 26; “Justice Bolin in Bar Unit,” New York Times, April. 14, 1943, p. 23; “Jane Bolin Second Week as Prosecutor: In High Office,” New York Amsterdam News, April 17, 1937, p. 1.
[11] McLeod, Daughter of the Empire State, p. 28; see also J. Clay Smith, Jr., “Black Women Lawyers: 125 Years at the Bar; 100 Years in the Legal Academy,” Howard Law Journal 40 (1997), pp. 366–72.
[12] Judith Ann Schiff, “Pioneers,” Yale Alumni Magazine, January/February, 2006, available at http://archives.yalealumnimagazine.com/issues/2006_01/old_yale.html.
[13] See Mary L. Clark, “One Man’s Token is Another Woman’s Breakthrough? The Appointment of the First Women Federal Judges,” Villanova Law Review 49 (2004), p. 487.
[14] L. Priscilla Hall, “On the Occasion of the Retirement of Justice Edith Miller,” New York State Bar Journal, July/August, 1996. At the time of writing, Judge Kearse still serves on the Second Circuit Court of Appeals; Judge Motley died in 2005. Bolin was honored alongside both of them in 1984 at a luncheon of the National Conference of Black Lawyers. See the program of that luncheon, Pioneers In Justice: Honorable Jane Matilda Bolin, Chief Judge Constance Baker Motley, Honorable Amayla L. Kearse (New York: National Conference of Black Lawyers, Dec. 2, 1984).
[15]  Lawrence H.. Mamiya and Lorraine K. Roberts, “Invisible People, Untold Stories: A Historical Overview of the Black Community in Poughkeepsie,” The Dutchess County Historical Society Yearbook 72 (1987), pp. 76-77.
[16]  McLeod, Daughter of the Empire State, p. 2.
[17] See Dennis Dickerson, “Success Story with a Difference,” Williams Alumni Review 72, no. 1 (Fall 1979).
[18] Williams College, Gaius Charles Bolin Dissertation and Post-MFA Fellowships, available at http://faculty.williams.edu/graduate-fellowships-2/graduate-fellowships/ (last visited Mar. 13, 2016).
[19] McLeod, Daughter of the Empire State, p. 8.
[20] McLeod, Daughter of the Empire State, p. 10.
[21] See McLeod, Daughter of the Empire State, p. 9.
[22] McLeod, Daughter of the Empire State, pp. 10, 12.
[23] Bolin interview, 1990, p. 4.
[24] Bolin interview, 1990, p. 33.
[25] McLeod, Daughter of the Empire State, p. 9.
[26] Bolin Interview, 1990, p. 2.
[27] McLeod, Daughter of the Empire State, p. 9.
[28] McLeod, Daughter of the Empire State, p. 14.
[29] McLeod, Daughter of the Empire State, pp. 11–12.
[30] McLeod, “Jane Matilda Bolin,” p. 33.
[31] McLeod, Daughter of the Empire State, pp. 3–4, 14, 16.
[32] Linda M. Perkins, “The African American Female Elite: The Early History of African American Women in the Seven Sister Colleges, 1880–1960,” Harvard Educational Review 67, no. 4 (Winter 1997), p. 723.
[33] See Perkins, “The African American Female Elite,” pp. 723–24.
[34] McLeod, Daughter of the Empire State, p. 18.
[35] McLeod, Daughter of the Empire State, p. 18.
[36] McLeod, Daughter of the Empire State, pp. 19–20; see also Jasmin K. Williams, “Jane Matilda Bolin – A Woman of Firsts,” New York Post, February 9, 2007, p. 8.
[37] McLeod, Daughter of the Empire State, pp. 21–22.
[38] See Maud Chaplin to Jane M. Bolin, letter, December 7, 1981, Box 1, Bolin Papers.
[39] Jane M. Bolin, “Wellesley in My Life,” Wellesley After-Images: Reflections on Their College Years by Forty-Five Alumnae, ed. Barbara Warne Newell (Los Angeles: Wellesley College Club, 1974), quoted in “Wellesley Person of the Week,” July 10, 2000, available at https://web.archive.org/web/20000915183612/http://www.wellesley.edu/Anniversary/bolin.html
[40] Bolin, “Wellesley in My Life,” quoted in “Wellesley Person of the Week,” July 10, 2000.
[41] McLeod, Daughter of the Empire State, pp. 23–25.
[42] McLeod, “Jane Matilda Bolin,” pp. 60–61; see also “Gaius C. Bolin, Negro Lawyer, Tells of His Rise,” New York Herald Tribune, February 20, 1945, p. 18.
[43] Joseph F. Hawkins to Jane M. Bolin, letter, December 8, 1978, Box 3, Bolin Papers. Gaius Jr.’s son Lionel split the difference. Like his grandfather, he attended Williams; like his father, he attended law school in New York City; but like Judge Bolin, he practiced in the City itself, before settling down in Chicago. See Williams College Black Student Union, “Black Williams: A Written History,” (unpublished manuscript, accessed 2016), pp. 35–36, available at http://davis-center.williams.edu/files/2015/10/Black-Williams-A-Written-History-complete-edited-document.pdf.
[44] McLeod, “Jane Matilda Bolin,” p. 162; see also Jane M. Bolin to Professor Dennis Dickerson, letter, Feb. 2, 1979, transcript, Box 3, Bolin Papers.
[45] McLeod, “Jane Matilda Bolin,” p. 60; see also Martin, “Jane Bolin,” New York Times, January 10, 2007.
[46] McLeod, Daughter of the Empire State, pp. 24–25.
[47] McLeod “Jane Matilda Bolin,” pp. 73–74 & n.190.
[48] McLeod “Jane Matilda Bolin,” p. 76 n.199.
[49] McLeod “Jane Matilda Bolin,” pp. 74–81.
[50] See McLeod “Jane Matilda Bolin,” pp. 81–84.
[51] “Judge Bolin Declares Brotherhood Pointless Unless Poughkeepsie Ends Its Intolerance,” Poughkeepsie New Yorker, February 23, 1944, Box 1, Bolin Papers.
[52] Bolin interview, 1990,
[53] Bolin interview, 1990, p. 27.
[54] Jane M. Bolin to Professor Dennis Dickerson, letter, February 2, 1979, Box 3, Bolin Papers.
[55] Bolin interview, 1990, p. 73.
[56] Bolin interview, 1990, p. 74.
[57] Application Forms, Committee on Admissions for the Association of the Bar of the City of New York, Box 1, Bolin Papers.
[58] “Judge Bolin’s Interest Is Association’s Library,” The Afro-American (Baltimore), April 24, 1943, p. 13.
[59] See Bolin interview, 1990, p. 19.
[60] Patrice M. Pitts and Linda Vinson, “Breaking Down Barriers to the Federal Bench: Reshaping the Judicial Selection Process,” Howard Law Journal 28 (1985), p. 753 n.39; see also “The Higher Education of the Nation’s Black Women Judges,” Journal of Blacks in Higher Education 16 (1997), p. 108.
[61] Jane M. Bolin to Theodore Spaulding, letter, August 23, 1949, Box 3, Bolin Papers.
[62] Donna Liquori, “Dutchess Legal Giants Get a Courthouse Mural,” New York Times, May 20, 2005.
[63] Poughkeepsie City School District, “Administration Building Dedication,” press release, September 18, 2008, Available at http://www.poughkeepsieschools.org/2008/09/18/administration-building-dedication/
[64] A. Leon Higginbotham to Jane M. Bolin, letter, March 25, 1982, Box 1, Bolin Papers.
[65] Constance Baker Motley to Jane M. Bolin, letter, January 26, 1979, Box 3, Bolin Papers.
[66] Judith Kaye to Jane M. Bolin, letter, April 6, 1993, Box 3, Bolin Papers.


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