About Jane Matilda Bolin
A zealous advocate of civil rights and a trailblazer for diversity and inclusion, Jane Bolin was a woman of great consequence. Bolin was born on April 11, 1908, in Poughkeepsie, New York, to a father of both American Indian and African American descent and a mother who immigrated from the British Isles. As the child of an interracial couple, she often experienced discrimination and was frequently denied service at local businesses. Although her mother died when she was just 8 years old, Bolin grew up deeply admiring her father, Gaius C. Bolin, who was the first Black student to graduate from Williams College, owned his own legal practice, and was the first Black president of the Dutchess County Bar Association. As a young child, Bolin was deeply disturbed by portrayals of lynchings in the NAACP’s official magazine, The Crisis. Because of these brutal images, Bolin explained in her retirement letter, she became “determined to contribute in her own small way to social justice.”
At age 16, Bolin enrolled in Wellesley College where she was just one of two Black freshmen. Despite frequent instances of blatant racism, she graduated in 1928 as one of the top 20 students in her class. She was interested in following in her father’s footsteps and attending law school, but a career counselor at Wellesley insisted that this feat would be nearly impossible due to her race and gender. Nevertheless, Bolin would go on to attend Yale Law School where she was one of three women in her class and the only Black student. In 1931, she became the first Black woman to receive a law degree from Yale.
After earning her J.D. and passing the New York state bar exam, Bolin practiced law with her father in Poughkeepsie. In 1939, at just 31 years old, she became the first Black female judge in the United States with her appointment to the New York City Domestic Relations Court (renamed to the Family Court in 1962). Bolin was the only Black female judge in America for nearly twenty years after her initial appointment. Her cases with the Family Court typically involved battered spouses, neglected children, juvenile crimes, and paternity disputes. She famously chose not to wear judicial robes while in court in order to make the children involved in her cases feel more comfortable.
Throughout her career as a judge, she remained outspoken on civil rights issues, children’s education, and women’s rights. Notably, as a family court judge, Bolin put an end to the long-standing practices of assigning probation officers based on race and placing children with childcare agencies based on ethnicity. She served as a legal advisor for the National Council of Negro Women and served on boards for both the NAACP and the Child Welfare League. Whenever she visited her hometown of Poughkeepsie, she openly criticized its ongoing segregation of hospitals, local government, and schools.
Bolin remained a family court judge for 40 years until she reached the mandatory retirement age of 70 in December 1978. Even after her retirement, Bolin continued to volunteer her time as a reading instructor for New York City public schools and was appointed to the New York State Board of Regents. She passed away on January 8, 2007, at age 98. Bolin’s legacy contributed to that of other groundbreaking jurists such as Constance Baker Motley, the first Black woman appointed to the federal judiciary and a civil rights hero who cited Bolin as a source of inspiration for her career. Judge Motley, commenting on Bolin’s retirement, said “When I thereafter met you, I then knew how a lady judge should comport herself.”