First African American Female Judge
By Shola Adenekan
Jane Bolin, who has died aged 98, was an example of a woman knocking down barriers and leaving a foot-print for others to follow. She was the first black woman to graduate from the prestigious Yale Law School, the first to join the New York City Bar Association, the first to be employed in the city’s law department and America’s first black female judge.
In a speech in 1958, Bolin discussed women’s struggle for equal rights:
“Those gains we have made were never graciously and generously granted,” she said. “We had to fight every inch of the way, in the face of sometimes insufferable humiliations.”
Jane Matilda Bolin was born on April 11, 1908 in the New York suburb of Poughkeepsie. One of four children, her father, Gaius Bolin was the first graduate of the liberal Williams College and a prominent black lawyer and her mother, Matilda Emery, was a white British woman.
Bolin said she adored her father and that she always knew she wanted to be a lawyer. She remembered hanging around his office after school, admiring his legal books.
But Bolin privileged childhood was profoundly shaken by the ghastly articles and pictures of extra-judicial hanging of Black southerners she saw in The Crisis, the leading black magazine of the day.
As an undergraduate at Wellesley College, Bolin, who was one of the two black students had another life-changing experience; she recalled being mostly ignored by her fellow white students because of the colour of her skin. She was made to live off campus with the other black student. Her college days, she said, were mostly sad and lonely.
When she told a career adviser at the college that she wanted to study law at Yale University, she was told she to aim lower because she is a black woman.
Bolin said that these experiences inspired her lifelong interest in fighting social problems, poverty and racial injustice. At her graduation in 1928, she was named a Wellesley Scholar, a distinction given to the top 20 students of the class.
At Yale Law, she was one of the only three women and the only black student. After graduating in 1931, she worked shortly in her father’s law firm before setting up a private practice with her first husband.
She met fierce resistance when she applied to join the New York City’s legal department but became the first black person to serve as an assistant corporation counsel in the city. In that position, she fought for the employment of more African Americans by private companies trading with the city’s government.
In 1939, the renowned Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia appointed Bolin a family law court judge, thus making her the first Black woman in America to sit on the bench. Her swearing-in ceremony made news around the world. She served in that position for forty years.
Two years after their son was born, her husband, Ralph E. Mizelle died in 1943. In 1950, she married the Rev Walter P. Offtut, Jr. He died in 1974.
Bolin was an activist on the bench; she ended the placement of children in child-care agencies on the basis of racial origin and stopped the assignments of probation officers on the basis of race. She also helped to create a racially-integrated centre for delinquent boys.
A staunch Republican, she served on the board of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP) and the Child Welfare League among others. She has been awarded honorary degrees by several American universities.
She died on January 8, 2007, and is survived by her son, Yorke B. Mizelle.
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