Jane Bolin, who was born on April 11, 1908 in Poughkeepsie, New York, always knew she wanted to be a lawyer. Gaius Bolin, the first African American graduate of Williams College, was a lawyer in Poughkeepsie. Jane recalled hanging out in his office after school. “Those leather-bound books just piqued my interest,” she explained.
Bolin graduated from Wellesley College in 1928 and from the Yale University School of Law in 1931. There was only one other black student in her class at Wellesley; at Yale, she was one of three women and the only black student. She was the first black woman to graduate from Yale Law School.
She faced discrimination at both schools. “There were a few sincere friendships developed in that beautiful, idyllic setting of the college but, on the whole, I was ignored outside the classroom,” Bolin wrote in a 1974 essay published in Wellesley After Images. Even nearly half a century later, I am saddened and enraged to recall many of my Wellesley experiences, but my college days mostly evoke sad and lonely personal memories.
These experiences perhaps were partly responsible for my lifelong interest in the social problems, poverty and racial discrimination rampant in our country. . . . I report my memories honestly because this racism too is part of Wellesley’s history and should be recorded fully, if only as a benighted pattern to which determinedly it will never return and, also, as a measure of its progress.”Bolin and volleyball team
Bolin worked as a law clerk in her father’s office until she passed the New York State bar exam in 1932. She married an attorney, Ralph E. Mizelle, and the couple established a law firm in New York City. She was appointed Assistant Corporation Counsel for the City of New York in 1937, where she served on the Domestic Relations Court.
Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia appointed her to the Domestic Relations Court in 1939. Judge Bolin served on that court (now the Family Court of New York) for 40 years with distinction. She achieved two major changes with Judges Justine Wise Polier and Hubert Delaney: the assignment of probation officers to cases without regard for race or religion, and the requirement that private child-care agencies receiving public funds accept children regardless of ethnic background.
When her son, Yorke Bolin Mizelle, was born in 1941, Bolin took a leave of absence from the court. She juggled motherhood and a career after her husband died in 1943. “I don’t think I underserved anyone except myself,” she said. “I didn’t get enough sleep, and I didn’t get to travel as much as I would have liked because I felt my first responsibility was to my child.” She married Rev. Walter P. Offutt, Jr. in 1950. He passed away in 1974.
Bolin was a board member of the Wiltwyck School for Boys, the Child Welfare League of America, and the Neighborhood Children’s Center, as well as a member of the local and national NAACP. Honorary degrees have been bestowed upon Judge Bolin by Morgan State University, Western College for Women, Tuskegee Institute, Hampton University, and Williams College.