Jane Bolin was a Black woman of many firsts. She was the first Black woman to earn a law degree at Yale Law School, the first Black woman to join the New York City Bar Association, the first Black woman to serve as assistant corporate counsel for New York City, and most notably known as the first Black female judge in the United States. Bolin was nothing less than a trailblazer whose accomplishments led the way for Black women in the legal industry.
When I was working to become an attorney there were several women of color I could look up to, but Jane Bolin did not have those same examples. She constantly faced blatant racism and even isolation on the path to achieving her goals. From the very beginning, upon expressing interest in the legal field, she spoke to a guidance counselor at school about her interests and was told that there was little opportunity for women in law and absolutely none for a colored one. Additionally, even her father initially discouraged this career choice but Bolin continued to persevere.
In 1939, after becoming the first female, black judge at the age of 31, Bolin continued to be a pioneer and leader on the bench throughout her career. She was confronted by a range of issues fighting against racial discrimination within the system, especially when it came to the plight of children. She additionally changed segregationist policies that had been deep-rooted in the system, including skin-color based assignments for probation officers. Bolin worked with first lady Eleanor Roosevelt in providing support for the Wiltwyck School, which was an in-depth program to help eradicate juvenile crime among boys.
Jane Bolin continued to retain her seat on the bench, as three more mayors would reappoint Bolin to her seat, for three more ten-year terms.
Although Bolin never liked to make a big deal of her successes, her achievements carved out a path for representation in the legal system today. She never allowed racial or social injustice, discrimination, or doubts prevent her from achieving her goals. Bolin once said this, which alludes to the motivation behind her drive, “ [i]t is easy to imagine how a young, protected child who sees portrayals of brutality is forever scarred and becomes determined to contribute in her own small way to social justice.”
Jane Bolin is Black history personified. She is an inspiration and an example of how to be the difference and create change. For more information on Jane Bolin, check out her biography, Daughter of the Empire State: The Life of Judge Jane Bolin by Jacqueline A. McLeod, detailing Bolin’s life and career and was published in 2011.