Day 76 of Colourisation Project – July 22
On this day, July 22, 1939 at the age of 31, Jane Matilda Bolin was appointed America’s first black female judge.
Born on April 11, 1908, in Poughkeepsie, New York, Bolin was a trail-blazing attorney and role model for women of her era. She went on to serve on New York’s Family Court for forty years.
A highly intelligent and accomplished litigator, she rose through the ranks to achieve many firsts:
- the first black woman to graduate from Yale Law School
- the first black woman to join the New York City Bar Association
- the first black woman to serve as Assistant Corporation Counsel at the New York City Law Department
- the first black woman to become a judge
These achievements came despite her having to battle the hostility of racist elements inherent at all levels of society in the USA at the time. In the face of overt racism from even the top echelon of Wellesley College, a liberal arts college for women near Boston, she successfully graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1928 and was officially recognized as one of the top students of her class. Following this she attended Yale Law School, still having to contend with race based hostilities. Despite the discrimination she graduated in 1931, becoming the first black woman to earn a law degree from the prestigious institution.
“At Yale, Bolin was one of only three women in her class and the only black person. In an interview with The New York Times in 1993, she said that a few Southerners at the law school had taken pleasure in letting the swinging classroom doors hit her in the face. One of those Southerners later became active in the American Bar Association and invited her to speak before his bar group in Texas. She declined.” 
As an outspoken advocate and activist for civil and human rights, she chose not to wear judicial robes in the Family Court in order to make children feel more comfortable. When Bolin returned to her hometown of Poughkeepsie in 1944 as a judge, she reminded the citizens that the city government, schools and hospitals remained segregated.
“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.
In 1994 Bolin was presented with the Yale Law School Association’s Medal of Merit. Her portrait now hangs in the Yale Law School. Bolin continued to serve as a judge until her mandatory retirement in 1979, after which she served on the New York Board of Regents, reviewing disciplinary cases.
Bolin died in Queens, 2007 at the age of 98.