Rosa Parks, Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Madame CJ Walker—the list of women typically mentioned during Black History Month is incredibly short. But this year, CLUTCH will celebrate the achievements of Black women you may not have ever heard about.
Next up: Judge Jane Matilda Bolin
Born in Poughkeepsie, New York on April 11, 1908, Jane Matilda Bolin rose through the ranks to not only become the first Black woman to graduate from Yale Law School in 1931, but also the first Black woman to become a judge in the United States.
Born to an interracial couple—her father was Black and her mother was a White Englishwoman—Bolin graduated at the top of her high school class and enrolled at Wellesley College. Despite facing intense racism at Wellesley, she graduated in 1928 as one of the top students in her class.
Although she was discouraged to pursue law by a college counselor who told her that a Black woman would have little chance of becoming a lawyer, Bolin enrolled in Yale Law School where she was one of three women and the only Black person in her class. In an interview with the New York Times in 1993, Bolin recounted the horrors of racism she suffered while attending Yale, telling the reporter “a few Southerners at the law school had taken pleasure in letting the swinging classroom doors hit her in the face.”
However, racism did not deter Ms. Bolin. She went on to become the first Black woman to graduate from Yale Law School in 1931. After graduation she returned to Poughkeepsie to practice law with her father (who was the first Black graduate of Williams College) for a short time before marrying her first husband and moving to New York City.
In 1937, Bolin applied for a position with the New York City corporation counsel’s office and became the first Black woman to be the assistant corporate counsel for the city. In 1939, Mayor La Guardia swore her in as a judge during a surprise ceremony at the World’s Fair, and news of Judge Bolin’s accomplishment traveled around the world.
During her 40-year tenure as a family court judge, Bolin was an outspoken advocate and activist for civil and human rights. She served on the local and national board of the NAACP, and worked tirelessly to end the Jim Crow practices in the juvenile justice system. Bolin also fought to end discriminatory practices against Black probation officers in New York City. She told the Times: “When I came in, the one or two black probation officers handled only black families. I had that changed.”
In 1944, during a visit to her hometown as a local hero, Judge Bolin called them out for having segregated schools, hospitals, and city government.
“Poughkeepsie is fascist to the extent of deluding itself that there is superiority among human beings by reasons solely of color, race or religion,” she said in an interview with The Poughkeepsie New Yorker.
Judge Bolin was also a strong proponent of women’s rights. When asked about her views on the issue, she told reporters, “We have to fight every inch of the way and in the face of sometimes insufferable humiliations.”
After 40 years on the bench, Judge Bolin was forced to retire in 1978 when she turned 70, the mandatory retirement age. Although she did not agree with the rule, Judge Bolin continued to advocate for families for the rest of her life. She explained her passion in an interview with the Times.
“I’ve always done the kind of work I like,” she said. “I don’t want to sound trite, but families and children are so important to our society, and to dedicate your life to trying to improve their lives is completely satisfying.”
Known as “the lady judge” because of her love for fancy hats, pearls, and well-tailored suits, Judge Jane Matilda Bolin died on January 8, 2007; she was 98 years old.