Jane Bolin in 1942
Jane Matilda Bolin LL.B. (April 11, 1908-January 8, 2007) was the first African-American woman to graduate from Yale Law School, the first to join the New York City Bar Association, and the first to join the city's law department. She became the first black woman to serve as a judge in the United States when she was sworn in to the bench of the New York City Domestic Relations Court in 1939.
Bolin was born in Poughkeepsie, New York. She was the youngest of four siblings. Her father, Gaius Charles Bolin, was the first African-American to graduate from Williams College and became a lawyer. Her mother, Matilda Ingram Bolin (née Emery), a white Englishwoman, died when Bolin was 8 years old.
Read Jane Bolin's obituary, in the New York Times.
Bolin was educated at high school in Poughkeepsie, and was one of two black students in her class at Wellesley College in Massachusetts. Most of the white students ignored her, and she lived off campus with the other black student. A careers adviser at Wellesley College tried to discourage her from applying to attend Yale Law School due to her race and gender. She graduated in 1928 in the top 20 in her class, and joined Yale Law School, where she was the only black student, and one of only three women. She was the first African-American woman to receive a law degree from Yale in 1931 and passed the New York state bar examination in 1932. She practiced with her father in Poughkeepsie for a short period, and then with her first husband, Ralph E. Mizelle. She ran unsuccessfully for the New York State Assembly as the Republican candidate in the seventeenth district in 1936. She then joined New York City's legal department, serving as Assistant Corporation Counsel.
The mayor of New York City, Fiorello LaGuardia, appointed 31-year-old Bolin as a judge of the Domestic Relations Court on July 22, 1939 at the New York World's Fair. She remained a judge of the court, renamed the Family Court in 1962, for 40 years, with her appointment being renewed three times, until she was required to retire aged 70. She worked to encourage racially integrated child services, ensuring that probation officers were assigned without regard to race or religion, and publicly-funded childcare agencies accepted children without regard to ethnic background.
Her son, Yorke Bolin Mizelle, was born in 1941. Her first husband died in 1943. She married her second husband, the Rev Walter P. Offutt Jr., in 1950. He died in 1974.
Bolin was an activist for children's rights and education. She served on the boards of the NAACP, the Child Welfare League, and the National Urban League. She received honorary degrees from Tuskeegee Institute, Williams College, Hampton University, Western College for Women and Morgan State University.
She retired in 1979 and served on the New York State Board of Regents. She died in Queens, and was survived by her son.