Jane Bolin Didn’t Let Anyone Tell Her What She Couldn’t Do

This is the thirty-fourth entry in the series Honoring Black History.

If you‘ve heard of Jane Bolin, it’s probably in the context of her becoming the first black judge in the United States. It’s quite the accomplishment, no doubt, but Jane’s life was quite literally filled with firsts.

Born to an interracial couple in 1908 and growing up in the small city of Poughkeepsie, New York, Jane was often the target of discrimination and abuse. Her father, Gaius Bolin, was the first black man to graduate from Williams College. Jane attended the Smith Metropolitan AME Zion Church, which had been a stop on the Underground Railroad, and regularly read The Crisis, both of which had a significant impact on her in her early years.

A smart and dedicated student, Jane enrolled in Wellesley College (Vassar would not let her in) as one of only two black freshman. Despite (or perhaps in spite of) rejection from her white classmates, she excelled, graduating as one of the top students in her class in 1928. Her career counselor tried to dissuade her from applying to Yale Law School, saying there would be no work for a black woman in law, but Jane applied anyway and became the only black student and one of only three women in the school at the time. She graduated in 1931—the first black woman to receive a law degree from Yale—and passed the New York Bar exam in 1932.

After practicing law briefly with her father in Poughkeepsie, Jane moved to New York City and took a position in the city’s legal affairs office. In 1933, she married Ralph Micelle, a fellow attorney who later joined FDR’s Federal Council of Negro Affairs (a.k.a., the “Black Cabinet”). Then, in 1936, Jane ran for the New York State Assembly as a Republican (back before the parties effectively swapped places). She didn’t win, but her campaign bolstered her visibility in New York state politics and the Republican party. In 1937, Jane became the first black person to serve as assistant corporation counsel for the City.

In 1939, NYC Mayor Fiorello La Guardia, appointed Jane as a judge to the Domestic Relations Court. This appointment, in 1931, made Jane Bolin the first black woman judge in the United States and she remained the only black woman to sit on the bench… for twenty years! She remained a judge in that court for a total of forty years, when the law required her to retire (at age 70).

While on the bench, Jane worked tirelessly to end racial discrimination. She fought to end segregation in child placement. She pushed for publicly funded childcare agencies to accept children of all races. And she helped create an integrated treatment center for delinquent boys.

Jane was also an activist for children’s rights and education. She served as a legal advisor to the National Council of Negro Women and served on the boards of the NAACP, the National Urban League and the Child Welfare League. Upon her retirement, she continued her work in education as a reading instructor in New York City public schools and reviewed disciplinary cases for the New York State Board of Regents.

In so many ways, Jane Bolin was a pioneer. I can’t even begin to imagine what it must have been like to be the “first” so many times. To look around a room and see no one else who looks like you. No one who can understand your lived experiences. No one who you can be yourself around. That must have been incredibly lonely and isolating. Combine that with the number of folks who undoubtedly told her she could not succeed in the career she wanted and I can’t help but be amazed by her resilience. She persisted in so many ways and I am just in awe.

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