Happy Black History Month! This is the 13th blog of a series of blogs called “Black History Month Heroes You Should Know”. This series will be a collection of my research into little-known Black Americans who have made history in one way or another (or multiple ways!).
The focus of today’s blog is Jane Bolin, the first Black woman to attend Yale Law School and the first Black female judge in the United States.
This is her story.
Following Her Father’s Career Path
According to nytimes.com, Jane Bolin was born in Poughkeepsie, New York in 1908. Her father, Gaius C. Bolin, worked as a lawyer under his own legal practice and served as the president of the Dutchess County Bar Association. As a young girl, Bolin encountered photos of lynchings in a publication of the NAACP’s magazine Crisis. This is what, as she says, made her, “forever scarred and…determined to contribute in [my] own small way to social justice” (nytimes.com).
Faced Discrimination in College
Bolin decided to attend Wellesley College, where she faced discrimination as one of two Black freshmen. When Bolin expressed her interest in pursuing law school, her guidance counselor essentially told her the odds were not in her favor as a Black woman. Ultimately, Bolin graduated in the top 20 of her class and went on to attend Yale Law School.
Yale Law School
Bolin became the first Black woman to attend Yale Law School. At the time she attended, she was one of three women and the only Black person. In an interview, she remembered several other students from the South who would let the door slam in her face. Eventually, one of these people asked her to speak in front of the American Bar Association group he led in Texas. She refused.
Hired on the Spot
After she graduated from Yale, Bolin worked with her father for a time before applying at the New York City corporation counsel’s office. When she went in for an interview, the lead counsel Paul Windels walked in and hired her immediately. This made Bolin the first Black female judge in the United
States. They placed her in what would become Family Court. There, she handled cases dealing with adoption, domestic violence, child neglect, homicides committed by juveniles, and paternity suits. She worked these cases for nearly four decades before she retired in 1978.
After her retirement, Bolin became a volunteer reading instructor with the local school system. She was also appointed to the Regents Review Committee of the New York State Board of Regents, which oversees all educational activities in the state. Up until her passing in 2007, Jane Bolin advocated for civil rights, women’s rights, and served her community as a judge. You can read more about Jane Bolin here.
Read another article from the “Black History Month Heroes You Should Know” blog series here.