Jane Bolin: Breaker of Glass Ceilings


Jane Matilda Bolin, LL.B. 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.

Ambitious. Brilliant. Driven. And yet humble, generous, and kind. One of the most accomplished legal minds of her generation, and a breaker of glass ceilings throughout her life—today on Crime Capsule, as we continue our series on notable African-Americans in criminal and judicial history , we’re proud to introduce you to Jane Bolin of Poughkeepsie, New York.

One of four children, Bolin (1908-2007), was born into a family of trailblazers. According to Helen Engel and Marilynn Smiley in their book Remarkable Women in New York State History, Jane’s father, Gaius Bolin, an attorney in Poughkeepsie, had been the first African-American graduate of Williams College in Massachusetts.

Partly inspired by her father, young Jane excelled academically as she began to pursue her own career in the legal profession: not only did she graduate from Wellesley in the top twenty of her class, but the first glass ceiling she ever broke came at the age of twenty-three, when she became the first African-American to graduate from Yale University School of Law.

Rather than rest on her laurels, however, Bolin immediately set to work breaking another glass ceiling: becoming, upon her passing the bar in 1932, the first African-American woman to join the New York City Bar Association. After her own marriage and a brief stint in private practice, she joined the municipal court system, where she soon shattered the largest glass ceiling yet—one that stretched across the entire United States. Engel and Smiley have the story:

“In 1939, Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia appointed her a judge of the Domestic Relations Court, now renamed the Family Court of New York. This made her the first African American woman in the United States to become a judge, and she was just thirty-one years old.

The ceremony where she was sworn in as judge made news around the world. She served with distinction and was reappointed to ten-year terms by Mayors William O’Dwyer, Robert F. Wagner Jr. and John V. Lindsay. Bolin achieved major changes, which included the assignment of probation officers to cases without regard for race or religion and a requirement that publicly funded child-care agencies had to accept children regardless of ethnic background.”

As she attested at various times in her life, Bolin’s upbringing—including facing harassment and discrimination during her education—gave her a deep sympathy for those who faced the same, and a corresponding drive to ensure fairness and respect within families and communities using the power of the legal system. Interestingly, as one account of her life notes, in order to make children feel more comfortable in her courtroom she refused to wear judicial robes. But did we mention ‘driven’ earlier? In 1979, at the sprightly age of 70, Bolin only retired because she was forced to, after forty years of serving as a judge.

Meet more extraordinary women from New York:

Even so, a little speed bump like that couldn’t stop her from caring for others—even after retirement she continued to serve as a math and reading tutor in the New York City public schools.

Indeed, beyond her legal work, Bolin’s efforts reflected her abiding concern for the vulnerable, with service to organizations such as the Child Welfare League of America, the Neighborhood Children’s Center, the NAACP, the Scholarship and Service Fund for Negro Students, the Committee Against Discrimination in Housing, and the Urban League of Greater New York.

Now, we’ve never heard of judges and attorneys being given jerseys when they enter the public arena, but maybe it’s not a bad idea. One thing is for sure, however: Bolin’s would be hanging from the rafters, her number entered into retirement, as one of our all-time greats. Now that’s a motion we could get behind—provided, of course, that ceiling is made out of anything but glass.