Prominent African Americans in History: Jane Bolin served as the first female African American judge in the United States


graphic by Glorianna Noland

Jane Bolin was the first Black female judge to serve in the United States. She was a trailblazing attorney and an advocate for civil service, civil rights, children’s rights and education.

Jane Bolin was born on April 11, 1908 in Poughkeepsie, New York. Bolin was raised with the law as her father, Gaius C. Bolin, the first Black graduate of Williams College, had his own legal practice.

Growing up, Bolin found a love for law books. She also came to realize the weight of racism in the U.S. after reading articles on lynchings published by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. With that in mind, Bolin decided she’d take a stand and continued her education at Wellesley College. Being one of only two Black freshmen, Bolin was often ostracized at school. In fact, she’d be discriminated against or chastised for being Black and found it hard to create real friendships. Yet, in 1928, Bolin graduated and was named a Wellesley Scholar. Though, even with the recognition of her school, the thought of a Black woman starting a law career was seen as impossible. When speaking to a guidance counselor, Bolin was told that “there is little opportunity for women in law and absolutely none for a ‘colored one,’” according to Essence. Even her father was opposed to the idea at first, saying lawyers had to handle “the most unpleasant and sometimes grossest kind of human behavior,” as stated in the Times. However, Bolin pushed forward and was accepted into Yale Law School where she became the first Black woman to join the New York City Bar Association.

In 1931, Bolin graduated with a law degree and became the first Black woman to do so at Yale. She then began working at her father’s law office and later married Ralph E. Mizelle in 1933, relocating in New York, according to Biography. After being discriminated against while in search of a new job, Bolin opened a practice with her husband.

Later in 1937, she was appointed Assistant Corporation Counsel of the city of New York, becoming the first Black woman attorney hired by that company. Finally, two years later at the World’s Fair, Mayor Fiorello La Guardia appointed Bolin as a judge of the Domestic Relations Court, (now referred to as Family Court) making her the first Black woman to serve as a judge in the United States.

As a judge, Bolin fought to require child care agencies that utilized public funding to accept all children, regardless of race. She also changed segregation policies within the system, including skin-color based assignments for probation officers. Furthermore, she worked with First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt to decrease juvenile crimes amongst young boys. At the age of 70, Bolin retired after being reappointed three times, according to Ignite.

Throughout her lifetime, Bolin had been on the board of the National Urban League, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the Child Welfare League. She dedicated her life to the advancement of African Americans, breaking several glass ceilings in law. Bolin was a true activist and paved the way for many African American women.

Edited by: Glorianna Noland, Simran Shrestha