Jane Bolin, First African-American to graduate from Yale Law School, Died at 98

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Jane Matilda Bolin died on January 8, 2007, at the age of 98, she was the first African-American 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.

Born on April 11, 1908, in the suburb of Poughkeepsie, New York, she was the youngest of four children.

Her father was Gaius C. Bolin, a lawyer and the first African American to attend Williams College and her mother was a white, British Woman named Matilda Ingram Emery, who died when Bolin was 8 years old.

Jane Bolin adored her father and she always knew she wanted to be a lawyer as her father but, her childhood was completely destroyed when she saw all the horrible articles and pictures of the extrajudicial hanging of black southerners she saw in The Crisis, the leading black magazine of the day.

Jane Bolin was a superb student who graduated from high school in her mid-teens and went on to enroll at Wellesley College.

Though facing overt racism and social isolation, she graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1928 and was officially recognized as one of the top students of her class.

After graduation, she practiced for a short time with her father in Poughkeepsie. She then married a lawyer, Ralph E. Mizelle, and the two practiced in New York. He died in 1943.

In 1950, she married Walter P. Offutt Jr., a minister; he died in 1974.

In addition to her son, she is survived by a granddaughter and a great-granddaughter.

Having already been assigned to what would be known as Family Court, Bolin was a thoughtful, conscientious force on the bench, confronting a range of issues on the domestic front and taking great care when it came to the plight of children.

She also changed segregationist policies that had been entrenched in the system, including skin-colour based assignments for probation officers.

Bolin was reinstated as a judge for three additional terms, 10 years each, after her first, also serving on the boards of several organizations, including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the New York Urban League.

Though she preferred to continue, Bolin was required to retire from the bench at the age of 70, subsequently working as a consultant and school-based volunteer, as well as with the New York State Board of Regents.

The “lady judge” was frequently in the news at the time of her appointment with accounts of her regal bearing, fashionable hats and pearls.

But her achievements transcended being a shining example.

As a family court judge, she ended the assignment of probation officers on the basis of race and the placement of children in child-care agencies on the basis of ethnic background.

When Bolin reached the mandatory retirement age of 70 in 1978, she was forced to step down from the bench. She was very much opposed to the idea.

Though she left the bench, Bolin remained active.

She became a member of the Regents Review Committee of for the New York State Board of Regents where she reviewed disciplinary cases.

She also tutored New York public school children in math and reading during her retirement, and worked as a family law consultant.

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