In the spring of 1939, as the US struggled to drag itself out of the Great Depression and with World War II looming on the horizon, a grandiose attempt by a group of New York businessmen to lift the City out of its doldrums, a World’s Fair dubbed the World of Tomorrow, opened its gates to the public on the site of a cleaned-up ash dump in Flushing Meadows. Then-mayor Fiorello La Guardia was a big booster of the project and loved using the Fair as a staging area for public relations events; he’d even brought in Albert Einstein to participate in the Grand Opening ceremonies.
So on July 22 of that year, when a 31-year-old Poughkeepsie-born attorney who worked for the City’s Office of the Corporation Counsel was summoned by the mayor to show up at the fairgrounds, she was worried that she might be getting fired, or at least publicly reprimanded for some misfeasance. As a gifted and ambitious young mixed-race woman, Jane Bolin (1908-2007) had encountered public hostility many times before. Although she was smart enough to skip grades and graduate high school by the age of 15, her neighborhood college, Vassar, wouldn’t admit her because one of her paternal grandfathers was African American and the other Native American (her mother was a white immigrant from Northern Ireland who died when Jane was only 8).
At Wellesley College, Bolin was ostracized so completely by her fellow students – other than being asked to play Aunt Jemima in a school skit – that she quickly moved off-campus to room with the only other black girl in her year. Although when she graduated in 1928 she was named a Wellesley Scholar, meaning that she was among the top 20 students of the class, her guidance counselor tried hard to talk her out of applying to Yale Law School. So did her father, Gaius C. Bolin, a Poughkeepsie lawyer and National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) organizer who was the first black graduate of Williams College and later became the first black president of the Dutchess County Bar Association. He thought that girls shouldn’t be exposed to the ugliness of human behavior that is part of an attorney’s job.
Nevertheless, she persisted. Jane went to Yale anyway, one of three women in her class and the only black person, enduring more mockery from fellow graduate students who found it amusing to slam doors in her face. She became the first black woman to graduate from Yale Law School, in 1931, and the first to join the New York City Bar Association, setting up a joint practice in the City with her first husband, Ralph E. Mizelle. Following an unsuccessful 1936 run for State Assembly on the Republican ticket, Bolin went to work for the Corporation Counsel and was assigned to Domestic Relations Court.
She needn’t have worried, but it’s a good thing that she took her husband with her for moral support to that meeting with La Guardia in the New York Pavilion at the World’s Fair. Turned out that the mayor wanted to name her, then and there, with flashbulbs popping all around, the first black woman in the US to become a judge. The ceremony made news across the globe. Her appointment was to the same Domestic Relations Court (renamed Family Court in 1962) where she already did much of her work. She presided there with distinction for four ten-year terms, reappointed to the bench by three different mayors: O’Dwyer, Wagner and Lindsay. (For the first 20 of those years, she remained the only black female judge in the country – a fact that she said “embarrassed” her.) There was even talk of bumping her upstairs to a federal judgeship, but Bolin thought she was making her most meaningful contribution right where she was. It was with great reluctance that she accepted mandatory retirement at the age of 70, in 1978.
During her tenure in Family Court, Bolin worked to encourage racially integrated child services, ending the assignment of probation officers on the basis of race and the placement of children in child-care agencies on the basis of ethnic background. She collaborated with Eleanor Roosevelt to establish and sustain the Wiltwyck School, a remedial program in the Town of Esopus that helped African American juvenile offenders from New York City reshape their lives; its most illustrious graduate, Floyd Patterson, went on to become the world heavyweight boxing champion and to found a boxing school for at-risk boys.
Other than a brief stint after graduation from law school working with her father and brother in their Poughkeepsie law firm, and her later work with the Wiltwyck School, Bolin didn’t maintain much of a connection with her Hudson Valley origins, although she is buried in the Bolin family plot at the Poughkeepsie Rural Cemetery. In a 1944 interview, she called her still-segregated hometown “fascist to the extent of deluding itself that there is superiority among human beings by reasons solely of color, race or religion.” After her retirement, she remained a Queens resident until her death in 2007 at the age of 98, staying engaged as a consultant to the National Council of Negro Women and a school-based literacy volunteer, as well as serving on the boards of the NAACP, the National Urban League and the Child Welfare League and on the Regents Review Committee of the New York State Board of Regents. She was awarded honorary degrees by the Tuskegee Institute, Williams College, Hampton University, Western College for Women and Morgan State University.
Jane Bolin is survived by her son, Yorke B. Mizelle, a granddaughter and great-granddaughter. Though in her lifetime she shrugged off her many “firsts,” citing only her desire to do her life’s work whatever obstacles she might have encountered, Bolin left a powerful legacy, and not only in the Family Court and foster care reforms she championed. She has been lauded as a role model by judge Constance Baker Motley, the first African American woman appointed to the federal bench, and by Judith Kaye, the first woman to serve as chief judge of the New York Court of Appeals. A mural at the Dutchess County Courthouse prominently features Jane and Gaius Bolin, Sr., and the Poughkeepsie City School District’s headquarters was renamed the Jane Bolin Administration Building. And in 2017, District 35 assemblyman Jeffrion L. Aubry introduced a bill to rename the Queens-Midtown Tunnel the Jane Bolin Tunnel.