Born April 11, 1908, in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., Jane Bolin was to become the first Black (biracial) woman judge in the United States. Her father, Gaius Bolin was the first African American to graduate from Williams College, and practiced law in the city of her birth.
Her mother Matilda Ingram Bolin, a White Englishwoman, died when she was 8 years old.
Inspired by her upbringing and time spent in her father’s law office, she attended Wellesley College and pursued a law degree from Yale University, becoming the first Black woman to accomplish that goal in 1931.
Being one of few African Americans at either school, Bolin experienced extreme discrimination from her classmates, but she persevered and found reason to become a lawyer and judge.
In a 1974 essay, Bolin wrote, “There were a few sincere friendships developed in that beautiful, idyllic setting of the college but, on the whole, I was ignored outside the classroom. 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 . . . I report my memories honestly because this racism too is part of Wellesley’s history and should be recorded fully, if only as a benighted pattern to which determinedly it will never return and, also, as a measure of its progress.”
After passing the New York State bar in 1932, she married Ralph E. Mizelle, an attorney, and opened up a practice. From there, her career and reputation extended far beyond the four walls of her office. In 1937, she was named assistant corporation counsel for the city of New York and was appointed judge of the Domestic Relations Court in 1939.
In her time as judge, she made dramatic changes to the law, including the assignment of probation officers regardless of race or religion and made it a requirement for private child-care agencies to accept children regardless of ethnic background.
Bolin continued to be an agent of change in her community until her death on Jan. 8, 2007, at 98.
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