Born April 11, 1908 in Poughkeepsie, New York, Jane Bolin always knew she wanted to be a lawyer. Her father, Gaius Bolin, the first African American graduate of Williams College, practiced law in Poughkeepsie. Jane remembered hanging around his office after school. “Those leather-bound books just intrigued me,” she said.
Bolin graduated from Wellesley College in 1928, and received her law degree from Yale University School of Law in 1931. At Wellesley there was only one other black student in her class; at Yale she was one of three women in the class and the only black. She was the first black woman to receive a law degree from Yale. At both schools she experienced discrimination. In a 1974 essay in Wellesley After Images Bolin said “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. I am saddened and maddened even nearly half a century later to recall many of my Wellesley experiences but my college days for the most part 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 clerked in her father’s law office until she passed the New York State bar exam in 1932. She married an attorney, Ralph E. Mizelle, and they opened a practice in New York City. In 1937 she was named Assistant Corporation Counsel for the City of New York, serving on the Domestic Relations Court.
In 1939 Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia appointed her a judge of the Domestic Relations Court. Judge Bolin served with distinction on that court (now the Family Court of New York) for 40 years. With Judges Justine Wise Polier and Hubert Delaney she achieved two major changes: the assignment of probation officers to cases without regard for race or religion; and a requirement that private child-care agencies that received public funds had to accept children without regard to ethnic background.
Bolin took a leave of absence from the court when her son, Yorke Bolin Mizelle, was born in 1941. After her husband died in 1943, she balanced motherhood and a career. “I don’t think I short-changed anybody but myself,” she said. “I didn’t get all the sleep I needed, and I didn’t get to travel as much as I would have liked, because I felt my first obligation was to my child.” In 1950 she married the Rev. Walter P. Offutt, Jr. He died in 1974.
Bolin served on the board of the Wiltwyck School for Boys, the Child Welfare League of America, the Neighborhood Children’s Center, and took an active role in the local and national NAACP. Judge Bolin has received honorary degrees from Morgan State University, Western College for Women, Tuskegee Institute, Hampton University and Williams College