Jane Matilda Bolin made history in 1939 when she was sworn in as the first African-American female judge in the United States.
Born in Poughkeepsie, New York, on April 11, 1908, to an interracial couple, Matilda Ingram Emery and Gaius C. Bolin, Bolin became a trailblazing attorney.
She was an activist, integrationist, jurist, and outspoken public figure in the political and professional milieu of New York City long before the modern Civil Rights movement.
Her father was an attorney who headed the Dutchess County Bar Association and cared for the family after his wife’s illness and death, which occurred when Bolin was a child.
Bolin grew to become an excellent child. She was studious. When she graduated from high school, she went on to enroll at Wellesley College where she graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1928 and was officially recognized as one of the top students of her class.
She then attended Yale Law School becoming the first African-American woman to earn a law degree from the institution in 1931. Bolin worked with her family’s practice until she married attorney Ralph E. Mizelle in 1933 and they relocated to New York.
In 1937, she applied for a position in the city’s law office, the Office of the Corporation Counsel of the City of New York and was initially denied.
She wasn’t surprised at the denial considering her experience at Yale where she was harshly discriminated and socially isolated from classmates and faculty.
“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,” Bolin said.
Meanwhile, she was later hired by Corporation Counsel Paul Windels, making her the first African-American woman to be appointed Assistant Corporation Counsel in New York.
For two years she worked in Domestic Relations Court representing those who could not afford legal aid until the event that turned her life around and put her name in the history books.
New York’s then-Mayor Fiorello La Guardia summoned to see Bolin. According to reports, she feared that someone had complained about her performance, hence she thought she was on the verge of losing her job.
Meeting La Guardia allayed her fears as she soon realized that she was going to be sworn in as the country’s first African-American female judge at 31.
Bolin spent the next 40 years of her life on the bench, fighting to rid the country of racial injustices, improving the plight of young African Americans, and reforming the juvenile system.
Her groundbreaking rulings have made major improvements to the lives of black families and young people to date.
Bolin was reinstated three times as a judge, and she retired at age 70. At the time of her retirement, she told the New York Times. “I’ve always done the kind of work I like. I don’t want to sound trite, but families and children are so important to our society, and to dedicate your life to trying to improve their lives is completely satisfying.”
Bolin went on to work as a consultant and volunteer in local schools, until she died in Long Island City, Queens, New York, in 2007 aged 98.