Exactly one week ago today, Wellesley College announced the appointment of its 14th president, Paula A. Johnson. There is obviously no list of “14ths,” but Johnson, a physician whose work has stood at the intersection of health care and women’s rights throughout her distinguished career, made history as the college’s first African-American president. As reported in the Boston Globe, Johnson acknowledged that “she has a special duty toward the school … promising to work to ‘strengthen and [deepen]’ the college’s diversity, while also ensuring ‘that our residential experience is taking full advantage of that diversity … ’”
Just over 80 years earlier, Jane Bolin (1908-2007), graduate of an integrated high school in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., attended a Wellesley College struggling with its fledgling diversity. In 1924 she was one of only two black first-year students, and a rich “residential experience” for the two young women was not available. Housed with the other student of color in a private home off campus until the roommates proved incompatible enough that they were relocated to the dormitories where the white students lived, Bolin recounted her experiences at Wellesley with distaste. Her years there “saddened and maddened” her, the isolation she experienced perhaps rivaled only by her time at Yale Law School, where the doors that had been opened to her by a recent charter that allowed entry to women were literally slammed in her face by male classmates.
Yet Yale marked Bolin’s entry into the world of firsts. In fact, in a 2011 biography, Jacqueline McLeod wrote that assessments of Bolin’s decadeslong career had been “relegated to the vignettes of firsts” for African-American women: first to earn a law degree from Yale University (1931), first to be hired as a lawyer in New York City’s legal department (1937), first to be admitted to the Association of the Bar of the City of New York (1943)—and, the milestone for which she is best-known, the first African-American female judge in the United States (1939).
Bolin achieved all of these firsts at the outset of her career, just 31 years old when New York City’s Mayor Fiorello La Guardia swore her in as a judge on the city’s Domestic Relations Court. But her life spanned nearly a century, and while it is fair and correct to describe her as judge and jurist, the description that has inexplicably eluded her—at least in the opening lines of the few biographical sketches available about her—is civil rights activist. McLeod sums up Bolin’s contributions this way: “An integrationist of irreducible dedication, Jane Bolin mounted a veritable campaign against segregation yet managed to keep herself off the roster of civil rights trailblazers.” The question that remains unanswered is how.
Activism ran in Bolin’s blood. She was born April 11, 1908, in Poughkeepsie, a city with a long-established black population. Her father, Gaius Charles Bolin Sr., the first black graduate of Williams College (1899) and the first black lawyer in Dutchess County, was elected president of the Dutchess County Bar Association in 1945.
In addition, her involvement with the NAACP was lifelong. After her mother died when Bolin was 8, her father raised her on a steady diet of civil rights and black community, and The Crisis was mandatory reading. In 1931, Bolin and her siblings co-founded the organization’s Dutchess County branch. (During her time on the bench, Bolin, an advocate of “participatory democracy” [pdf] in the running of the NAACP—a philosophy promoted by civil rights leader Ella Baker, former director of the group’s branches—became increasingly outspoken about what she saw as the national leadership’s “contemptuous and scornful” treatment of the branches. A protracted struggle with the national leadership played out in the black press, not in Bolin’s favor, and led her to resign voluntarily from the organization, but her commitment to civil rights never diminished.)
As the daughter of a lawyer and the wife of one (Bolin’s husband, Ralph Mizelle, would serve in Franklin Roosevelt’s “black Cabinet”), Bolin did what many female lawyers of the period did: join the practices of their husbands and fathers. Bolin found herself in a dual, contradictory position, battling discrimination because of her race and gender on the one hand, but enjoying privilege because of her close connection to male lawyers on the other.
In 1931, with her lawyer brother poised to become a partner in their father’s firm, Bolin relocated to New York City. After a series of rejections, she partnered with her husband in 1933, but the Depression hit already-precarious black firms hard, and by 1937, Mizelle & Bolin was shuttered. One year prior, Bolin had run for a seat in the New York State Assembly. Although she was trounced at the polls, even her Republican candidacy gave her clout, and in 1937 the Democrat La Guardia hired her as assistant corporation counsel in the city’s legal department, assigned to the Domestic Relations Court, which the New York Times described as “handl[ing] many cases involving members of her race.” The black community, still seething in the aftermath of the 1935 Harlem race riot, “now had an advocate working on the inside of the city’s judicial system who fully appreciated the seriousness of their plight.”
Two years later, on July 22, 1939, on the grounds of the World’s Fair, the woman who had thwarted convention by keeping her name instead of adopting her husband’s—“Mrs. Mizelle,” she said, always fell strangely on her ears—learned secondhand of the crowning achievement of her career. The mayor addressed her only after he had consulted her husband about whether she would accept a judgeship. Indeed, when La Guardia approached her moments later, it was with Bible in hand. With no forewarning, Jane Bolin was sworn in as a judge of the Domestic Relations Court. She would be reappointed to the position three times, serving four 10-year terms, retiring only when it was mandatory, at age 70. She was the only African-American female judge in the country for 20 years.
Family courts and juvenile courts at the time “represented the lowest rung of the judicial hierarchy,” relying as they did on what was considered to be female expertise surrounding children’s rights. Bolin subscribed to no such notions. During her four decades on the bench, she consistently chipped away at the institutional racism that plagued New York City. Discrimination was rampant in the court system, with white children in Domestic Relations Court assigned exclusively to white probation officers (religion played a role in these assignments), and black children to black probation officers.
That there were only two African-American probation officers in the early 1940s on the rolls intensified the need for systemic change. With persistence, Bolin succeeded in having religion and race removed as factors in court assignments. Ultimately, she had similar success in desegregating the city’s child-placement services that were dependent on public funds, although that fight would transpire over two of her terms, beginning in 1942 and ending in 1955.
Many believed that the mainstream New York press was complicit in demoralizing the city’s black population, thus ensuring a steady stream of children into Bolin’s courtroom. In 1943 Bolin joined other law professionals and community leaders in demanding changes to the reporting of crimes and the descriptions of alleged perpetrators. The papers identified African Americans only by race—“Negro”—in such reporting. Bolin and her colleagues succeeded in exacting a promise from the press to end its practice of racializing crime for so-called delinquents under the age of 16.
Her activism no doubt jeopardized her reappointments at times; regardless, she held firm to her beliefs in matters within her court and without. In 1943, following the second bout of riots in Harlem in under a decade, La Guardia announced plans to build a whites-only housing project in the area. Not yet halfway through her first term, Bolin assailed the City Council, the mayor and the president of the United States with details from her experience: “‘As a judge in the Domestic Relations Court I see daily the effects not only of inadequate housing but of segregated housing on families and children,’” she said, McLeod notes. In this fight she was not alone, and after eight years, the City Council passed an amendment barring discrimination in public housing facilities.
Shortly after her appointment to the Domestic Rights Court, Bolin served as a legal adviser to the National Council of Negro Women at the urging of Mary McLeod Bethune herself. Constance Baker Motley, the famed civil rights lawyer and judge, cited Bolin as a role model. Yet unlike theirs, her name has remained relatively unknown. In a 1993 interview, Bolin addressed the issue head-on, as she did every issue that came before her: “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.” This was the same sentiment she’d expressed upon her appointment to the New York City legal department in 1937. At that time she said, “My main interest has always been the uplift of our race.”
Edited by Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, the African American National Biography was first published by Oxford University Press in an award-winning, eight-volume print edition in 2008; a 12-volume second edition followed in 2012. As of 2015, more than 5,500 separate AANB entries are available online as part of OUP’s African American Studies Center.
Julie Wolf is a freelance writer and editor who lives in the Boston area.