Monday, May 20, 2019

Gaius and Jane Bolin

[My exam in American Legal History also includes a biographical essay.  Usually (as here and here), it treats only a single person.  I intended to do the same this year when, prompted by an event sponsored by the Black Law Students’ Association at the Yale Law School, I decided to see whether Jane Bolin would be a good subject.  Jacqueline A. McLeod’s Daughter of the Empire State: The Life of Judge Jane Bolin (University of Illinois Press) certainly showed that she would be, but it also gave an intriguing view of her father Gaius Bolin, so I opted for a joint essay.  Daughter of the Empire State is my principal source for this essay, augmented by Kenneth Mack’s discussion of Jane Bolin in Representing the Race: The Creation of the Civil Rights Lawyer (Harvard University Press), and my own searches on  In addition to the linked images, be sure to check out the picture of daughter and father during Jane Bolin’s return to Poughkeepsie in 1944 that Professor McLeod reproduces in her book.  Dan Ernst]

Gaius Charles Bolin (1864-1946) and his daughter Jane Matilda Bolin (1908-2007) were descendants of African Americans who had lived in or near the Hudson River town of Poughkeepsie, New York, for generations, first in slavery and then, after the adoption of gradual emancipation laws in 1799 and 1817, as free men and women.

Gaius, one of thirteen children born to a farmer and merchant and his wife, attended Poughkeepsie’s recently integrated public high school.  There he so impressed the principal that he urged Gaius to apply to his alma mater, Williams College.  After two years’ further study of Latin and Greek for the entrance exam, he matriculated at Williams, an elite liberal arts college located in a small town in western Massachusetts that had not yet admitted an African American.  As a freshman, Gaius lived off campus in the home of an African American family, but the next year he moved into a dorm, sharing a room with his newly matriculated brother.  The brothers’ room became a popular hangout for their classmates, who chose Gaius to speak at their commencement in 1889.  He was the first African American to graduate from Williams.

For the next year Gaius worked in his father’s store and then read law for two years in the office of a local, white attorney.  He was admitted to the New York bar in 1892 and, after a few more years with the attorney, opened his own practice in his overwhelmingly white hometown, joining Poughkeepsie’s tiny African American professional class.  (Most of its African Americans were day laborers, janitors, maids, or factory workers.)  He described his career “as the usual experience of a country lawyer.” Most of his clients were white.  He had, it was said, “a deep and sonorous voice.”  He was also known for “his ready sympathy for those who transgress the law” and a “hearty laugh.”  He considered the law “a grand profession.”

New York’s Republicans soon spotted Gaius.  In 1900, then-governor Theodore Roosevelt appointed him the only African American member of a commission overseeing an exposition held in Buffalo.  Gaius repaid the favor by warning Roosevelt that the bosses of the Dutchess County Republican Party were intent on doing everything they could “to embarrass and defeat” him “in his quest for reelection as governor.

In 1899, Gaius married Matilda Emery, a Caucasian who, as a child, had emigrated from Northern Ireland.  The couple had four children.  Their only son became a lawyer and practiced with his father.  Their youngest child, Jane, was not yet 10 when her mother died in 1917.  Gaius never remarried.  He spent most of his leisure time at home, reading widely and attending to his children.  “I was always very close to my father,” his daughter Jane later remarked, and I guess [was] spoiled by him.”

As Jane recalled, Gaius instructed his children to admire “W. E. B. Du Bois and not Booker T. Washington.”  At a dinner of Poughkeepsie’s Frederick Douglass Club, formed in 1910 so that the city’s African Americans could “celebrate some of the things black men have done and pay tribute to those who were deserving and worthy,” Gaius urged the attendees to teach their children to “strive with might and main to attain the very highest and best citizenship, civilization, and standing the world knows anything about.”  He subscribed to three leading African American newspapers as well as the Republican-leaning New York Herald Tribune.   He also contributed to the NAACP and subscribed to its journal, The Crisis.

Gaius did not let a racial slight pass unchallenged.  When the president of Vassar, an all-women’s college located in Poughkeepsie, told a joke demeaning to African Americans during an assembly at the high school, Gaius sent strongly worded letters to him and to the school’s principal.  He also protested the discriminatory treatment of African Americans by the YMCA and YWCA and employment discrimination by local schools, restaurants, and hotels.  In 1922, a Texan attending a local business college assaulted him after the student claimed, erroneously, that Gaius had refused to give up his seat on a crowded trolley to a woman.  Gaius had the student arrested and, after his release on bail, had him jailed again under a statute permitting it for violent torts.  And at age 70, he filed a formal complaint with the City Board of Police Commissioners after testimony at the trial of his clients showed them to have been victims of a “wantonly unnecessary use of blackjacks.”

In 1939, Gaius reported to his Williams classmates, “I have been a small-town practitioner of the law here in Poughkeepsie and have enjoyed it.  We have a fine bar and fine judges and for me the practice of the law in this county and adjoining counties has been a pleasure.”  In 1945, his fellow lawyers elected him president of the Dutchess County Bar Association, the first African American so honored.  When he died the next year at age 81, the local paper mourned the passing of “a respected member of an old Poughkeepsie family and an outstanding citizen,” who was “[e]ver devoted to the Negro race” and “fearless in advancing their cause and protecting their rights.”

Jane Bolin followed her father into the law.  “There has never been a moment I can remember,” she once told a reporter, “when I wanted to be anything else than a lawyer.”  As a child, she loved “being surrounded by those shelves and shelves of law books” in his office and “hearing him talk.”  She shared her father’s awareness of racial bias.  At the age of fifteen, she chastised the local newspaper for identifying the race of African Americans in its stories but not Caucasians and for rendering their speech in Southern dialect.

After years on the honor roll in Poughkeepsie’s integrated public school, in 1924, when she was only 16, Jane matriculated at Wellesley College, located near Boston, Massachusetts.  (Vassar had never knowingly admitted African Americans.)  For their first two years, Jane and another African American student were not allowed to live in college dorms but shared a room in a nearby private home.  They did eat meals with other students, although students from the South pointedly refrained from entering the dining hall until others had filled the vacant seats at their table.

Although Jane graduated in 1929 as one of the top twenty students in her class, her advisor strongly warned her against a legal career.  Her father also had his doubts.  “I don’t like you becoming a lawyer,” he said, “because lawyers have to hear dirty things sometimes and a woman shouldn’t have to hear some of the things a lawyer hears.”  Neither knew the Yale Law School had already admitted her.  She was one of only three women in her class and the only African American.  Again she encountered racial slights.  A few Southern students took pleasure in letting swinging classroom doors hit her in the face.  A professor refused to acknowledge her presence until the dean shamed him into doing so after she had greeted the two of them standing together in a hallway.

Jane graduated in 1931, the first African American woman to do so.  Because New York required law graduates to clerk for six months before taking the bar exam, Jane worked in her father’s law office in Poughkeepsie.  Because she thought her hometown could not support three Bolin lawyers, she then decided to try New York City.

Jane had personal as well as professional reasons or her decision.  During her first year in law school, when she was 20 and he was almost 35, Jane met Ralph E. Mizelle at the home of a New Haven professional and his wife.  Mizelle was a native of northern Florida who had attended several colleges and taught briefly at South Carolina State College.  He married during officer training in World War I; how or when that marriage ended is not known.  After serving overseas, he settled in New York City.  He graduated from the Fordham Law School in 1923 and was admitted to the New York bar in 1924.

Jane thought him “a very attractive man, physically,” with “a flair for life.”  He gave her an automobile when she graduated from Yale.  The two were engaged before Jane moved to New York City in 1932.  They secretly wed in February 1933 and did not announce their marriage to their friends until July 1935.

The couple practiced together as Mizelle & Bolin, with Jane keeping her maiden name and handling divorce and other family law matters.  The practice did not flourish, and Jane took a year off from law to work for public health and housing agencies in Harlem, as well as the NAACP. 

In 1936 Jane agreed to run as a Republican for a seat in the New York state assembly.  She said she supported Republican presidential candidate Alf Landon because she believed that “social reforms should be worked out under our traditional form of government” and because of “discrimination against colored people in the administration of relief and relief jobs.”  She lost by a wide margin but earned the good will of local party officials.

Ralph was active in the 1936 presidential campaign as well-but on the other side.  He was an assistant to the director of the “colored division” of the Democratic National Committee and had a reputation as a “vote-getter in the colored electorate.”  In October 1937, his reward came when James Farley, FDR’s Postmaster General and campaign manager, appointed him an assistant attorney in the Post Office Department.   Jane remained in New York while Ralph spent the work week in Washington. 

Jane also had been angling for a government job.  In 1933, New Yorkers, repulsed by an unusually corrupt Democratic administration, elected as mayor the Progressive Republican Fiorello La Guardia.  He appointed Paul Windels, a close advisor, Republican, and corporate lawyer, to be the Corporation Counsel for the City of New York.  When Jane interviewed for a position in his office in 1937, a subordinate was about to send her away when Windels “happened” by.  Apparently aware of her professional credentials-he recruited from elite law schools-and her party service, he hired her on the spot.  She was the first African American woman to hold a legal position in the office and was paid $3,500 a year-less than her husband, he pointed out.  She began her work immediately with a visit to the Domestic Relations Court, to which, it was reported, she “would be attached.”

At some later point in 1937, the Mayor himself called Jane to his office but then sent her away, saying only that she was too young for the job he had had in mind.  In 1939, when she was 31, La Guardia asked her to return and to bring her husband.  Again, he did not say why.  The couple went to his office and waited for him to show up. When La Guardia did, he said nothing to Jane but asked Ralph to follow him into an inner office.  Just what passed between the two men is not known, but Jane later indicated that La Guardia wanted to assess Ralph’s character.  Satisfied, he returned to the reception area, told Jane he was appointing her to the Domestic Relations Court, and swore her in on the spot.  “If I had known,” she remarked, “I would have worn a nicer dress.”  It was a ten-year appointment at $12,000 a year-on a par with the salaries of general counsels in the New Deal and far above that of her husband.  She thus became the first female, African American judge in the United States.

“Reporters trailed her for days,” writes the historian Kenneth Mack.  Because she chose not to wear a judicial robe-she thought children appearing before her would be more at ease if she did not-her attire was on display.  Thus, on her first day as a judge it was reported that she was “fashionably smart in a beige sheer wool two-piece suit, an aquamarine blouse, russet brown shoes and a large natural hat.”  Reporters also noted the “keen, penetrating glance” she trained on the courtroom and her intention to act on “a broad sympathy for human suffering.”  She added, “I’ll see enough of it.”

Jane and Ralph stayed married; their only child, a son, was born in 1941.  With the help of a maid, Jane kept working.  She continued to do so after Ralph died, in Washington, in 1943.  In old age Jane confessed that she “had and still has a sense of guilt” at only spending evenings and weekends with her child when he was young.  In 1950, she remarried, to a minister and NCAAP official who predeceased her. 

Although she recalled many racial slights in her personal life, Jane claimed never to have “experienced discrimination professionally.”  She belonged to predominantly African American groups, including the National Bar Association, the National Association of Negro Women, and the NAACP, on whose Board of Directors she served until she broke with the national leadership.  Except for Thurgood Marshall’s lawyers, NAACP leaders were too timid for her tastes.   Bolin also joined the National Association of Women Lawyers when it finally accepted African Americans.  In 1943 she became the first African American woman to join the Association of the Bar of the City of New York.

Judge Bolin presided in every borough of the city.  “I am a judge, not for Harlem, nor the children of Harlem, but for the whole city and for all the children who are in trouble.”  She took “an individual view” of each case, she said, digging into “the background of the child, his physical and mental endowments, all his emotional patterns.”  Her job, she thought, was not to punish but to help.  Women, she believed, were not necessarily better family court judges than men.  She helped end the assignment of probation officers to children on the basis of race, and she fought to do the same for placements of children in social service agencies that received city funds.  Three different mayors reappointed her.  She served until she reached the mandatory retirement age of 70 in 1978. 

In 1944, Jane was invited to speak at a dinner in her hometown in honor of American Brotherhood week.  She observed that Poughkeepsie still had no African American judge, district attorney, police officer or fireman and that few black workers in its factories had supervisory positions.  Under the circumstances, she could not say that she regretted leaving her hometown.  “I hate fascism whether it is practiced by Germans, Japanese, or by Americans,” she declared, “and Poughkeepsie is fascist to the extent of deluding itself that there is superiority among human beings by reason solely of color or race or religion.”

Her father might have put it differently-he preferred “a quiet and efficient sort of pressure”--but he probably agreed with the substance of his daughter’s remarks.  When Gaius Bolin died two years later, the local newspaper reported that he “felt that some progress had been made” during his lifetime but also that not “all the things he wanted for his people” had come to pass.