“Those gains we have made were never graciously and generously granted. We have had to fight every inch of the way — in the face of sometimes insufferable humiliations.” Judge Jane Bolin was the first Black woman graduate of Yale Law School and the first Black woman judge in the United States. She set an example for me and all other Black women who followed her at Yale Law. As a judge she was an inspiration for a new generation of women and Black women lawyers. She also was an influential voice for children, families, and the disadvantaged throughout her long career on the bench. When she passed away in January at age 98, we lost a piece of our history but inherited a rich legacy.
Judge Bolin’s father was also a lawyer and a pioneer. The first Black graduate of Williams College, he went on to open a law practice in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. Spending time in his office inspired young Jane Bolin to consider her own career in law, although that wasn’t an obvious choice for a Black girl growing up in the early twentieth century. Initially even her father didn’t think law was a possible or good profession for a young woman. As one of only two Black students in her undergraduate class at Wellesley College, where she experienced prejudice inside the classroom and racism and social isolation from the other students outside the classroom, her adviser discouraged her from applying to law school. But Judge Bolin knew what she wanted to do and knew she was capable of doing it, and she applied to and was accepted at Yale Law School.
At Yale, she experienced more of the pervasive racism she had experienced at Wellesley coupled with pervasive sexism: Wellesley was a women’s college, but at Yale Law she was the only Black and one of just three women students in her class. But she persevered, and with her 1931 graduation she made history. When I attended Yale Law School between 1960-1963, I certainly had only a taste of what Judge Bolin must have experienced. I experienced, with fellow Black women students like the late great Pauli Murray, Eleanor Holmes Norton, Jean Cahn, and Judge Inez Smith Reed, exclusion from the Law School dormitories. We either had to stay in town or in the one segregated women’s graduate dorm. But we had each other and a handful of other Black women students in other Yale Graduate School departments. Women were not admitted to Yale College.
After graduation Judge Bolin clerked for her father while studying for the New York bar exam. After she married Ralph Mizelle, another young lawyer, they opened a law office together in New York City. In 1937 she fought racial and gender discrimination again to get a position with the New York City corporation counsel’s office where she was assigned to the city’s Domestic Relations Court. Two years later, when she was just 31 years old, Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia made her historic appointment as a judge on that court. She later said in an interview about becoming the first Black woman judge in the nation, “Everyone else makes a fuss about it, but I didn’t think about it, and I still don’t. I wasn’t concerned about first, second or last. My work was my primary concern.”
When her only child, son Yorke Bolin Mizelle, was born in 1941, Judge Bolin took a leave of absence. After her husband’s death in 1943 she combined raising her son with her full-time work on the bench. As a judge on the Domestic Relations Court, later renamed Family Court, many of Judge Bolin’s cases involved children and child welfare, including juvenile crime, adoptions, and child abuse and neglect. She and her colleagues, including the extraordinary Judge Justine Wise Polier, who was the first head of the Children’s Defense Fund’s Juvenile Justice Division at our inception, and Judge Hubert Delaney, made several positive changes in the system for children of color, including ending race-based assignments of probation officers and making sure child care agencies which received public funds could no longer deny children help because of ethnic background. Judge Bolin was a lifelong child advocate. Outside the courtroom she served on the boards and committees of a number of schools and organizations that served at-risk children including the Child Welfare League of America. She was also a board member of the N.A.A.C.P. and belonged to the Urban League and other organizations that fought racial discrimination.
Judge Bolin was reappointed to her seat by three mayors for three more ten-year terms. When she had to step down from the bench in 1979 after reaching the mandatory retirement age of 70, she volunteered as a tutor in the New York City public schools and went on to serve on the New York State Board of Regents. Judge Jane Bolin wasn’t just a pioneer in her professional life, but a role model of service to others, especially children. She was a lantern for me and many, many others who followed her path. We need more like her today.