Jane Matilda Bolin LL.B. (April 11, 1908 – January 8, 2007) was the first black woman to graduate from Yale Law School, the first to join the New York City Bar Association, and the first to join the New York City Law Department. She became the first black woman to serve as a judge in the United States when she was sworn into the bench of the New York City Domestic Relations Court in 1939.
Jane Matilda Bolin was born on April 11, 1908 in Poughkeepsie, New York. She was the youngest of four children. Her father was Gaius C. Bolin, a lawyer and the first black person to attend Williams College, and her mother was a white, British woman named Matilda Ingram Emery who died when Bolin was 8 years old. Jane Bolin adored her father and she always knew she wanted to be a lawyer as her father but her childhood was completely destroyed when she saw all the horrible articles and pictures of the extrajudicial hanging of black southerners she saw in The Crisis, the official magazine of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Bolin grew up as an active member of Smith Metropolitan AME Zion Church. Bolin attended a high school in Poughkeepsie and was one of two black students in her class at Wellesley College in Massachusetts. Most of the white students ignored her and she lived off campus with the other black students. A careers adviser at Wellesley College tried to discourage her from applying to Yale Law School due to her race and gender. She graduated in 1928 in the top 20 in her class, and enrolled at Yale Law School where she was the only black student, and one of only three women. She became the first black woman to receive a law degree from Yale in 1931 and passed the New York state bar examination in 1932.
She practiced with her father in Poughkeepsie for a short period, and then with her first husband, Ralph E. Mizelle. She ran unsuccessfully for the New York State Assembly as the Republican candidate in the seventeenth district in 1936. She then joined New York City’s legal department, serving as Assistant Corporation Counsel. The mayor of New York City, Fiorello La Guardia, appointed 31-year-old Bolin as a judge of the Domestic Relations Court on July 22, 1939, at the New York World’s Fair. She remained a judge of the court, renamed the Family Court in 1962, for 40 years, with her appointment being renewed three times, until she was required to retire aged 70. She worked to encourage racially integrated child services, ensuring that probation officers were assigned without regard to race or religion, and publicly funded childcare agencies accepted children without regard to ethnic background.