Jane Bolin was an amazing woman. As the first African American female judge in the United States, she was a trailblazer in many ways. After her appointment to New York's Domestic Relations Court, Bolin was the only black female judge in the U.S. for the next 20 years. But after a legal career spanning more than 45 years, she left a legacy for many black women to come. Bolin died in 2007 at the age of 99.
Jane Bolin's Early Years
Bolin was born in 1908 in Poughkeepsie, New York. Her father, Gaius Bolin, was also a lawyer and the first black person to graduate from Williams College and the first black president of the Dutchess County Bar Association. Her mother, Matilda, was an Irish immigrant but passed away when Bolin was only eight.
After high school, Bolin wanted to attend Vassar but was denied admission because of her race. She enrolled at Wellesley College, where she was one of only two African American freshmen and graduated in the top 20 among her class. Although her college career counselor discouraged her from applying to Yale Law School, the school admitted her, and Bolin became the only black student and one of only three women. In 1931 she became Yale Law School's first female African American graduate. She passed the New York state bar exam in 1932.
Bolin's Professional Career
Instead of following her father and older brother back to Duchess County to practice law, Bolin headed to New York City, taking a job with the New York City Corporation Counsel's Office. In 1936, Bolin ran for the New York State Assembly as a Republican candidate. Although she lost, securing the milestone as a black woman was another milestone in her distinguished life. In 1939, New York City's mayor appointed her to the Domestic Relations Court, where she served for 31 years. She once said of family law, “I'd rather see if I can help a child than settle an argument between adults over money.”
Bolin set an example for lawyers in New York and throughout the country, dedicating herself to her career and community. She was an activist for children's rights and education and served as a legal advisor to the National Council of Negro Women. Bolin served on the boards of the NAACP, the National Urban League, the Child Welfare League, and the City-Wide Citizen's Committee on Harlem. She worked to combat discrimination, helping to open a school for African American boys in New York City. After her retirement in 1979, she volunteered as a reading instructor in the New York City Public Schools.
North Carolina Family Law
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