That’s the kind of injustice Jane Bolin had to put up with for most of her life, and when she was appointed to the New York City Domestic Relations Court (a predecessor to more modern family courts) in 1939, she was in a position to really do something about it.
When Bolin was appointed by New York mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, she became the first African-American female judge in American history. Daughter of the Empire State, a slim but engrossing biography by Metropolitan State College of Denver historian Jacqueline McLeod, explains how Bolin used her position as a judge to speak out against the injustices of the period, especially the pervasive racial segregation of the age.
Compared to most African-American women of her day, Bolin was relatively well positioned to become an accomplished lawyer and jurist. Growing up in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., her father’s status as a prominent lawyer made her part of a small black professional class that earned the grudging respect of the white majority. Gaius Bolin and his colleagues, in turn, tried using their status to gradually bring about social change.
Progress was made, but very slowly. De facto segregation was still practised all over Poughkeepsie, even if “Jim Crow” laws were not in effect. The daughter of an interracial couple, Bolin once went to a beauty salon with her Irish-immigrant mother — only to be told that her mother would be served, but she had to go elsewhere. After attending Wellesley College — Vassar College, located much closer to home, would not accept black students — Bolin became the first African-American female graduate of Yale Law School, and then one of the few dozen black women practising law in the United States.
When Bolin was appointed to the bench, she earned a reputation as a thoughtful and compassionate jurist, who genuinely cared for the people — especially juvenile offenders — brought before her.
In one high-profile case, the parents of a teenager murdered by a friend during a heated argument told Bolin they had forgiven their son’s killer, and did not wish to see his parents lose their only child to prison. She sentenced the child to one year’s probation, and for years afterward proudly said that the offender never got in trouble again.
Perhaps more importantly, Bolin was not shy about taking on injustices outside of her courtroom. She wasn’t willing to put up with a system where black public defenders were never assigned to white defendants, and probation officers were assigned to offenders based on their race. She spoke out against laws that allowed for prosecuting young people as adults, and unfair media portrayals of the African-American community.
One of her biggest battles, however, was against an organization fighting on the same side: the National Association for the Advancement of Colored Persons. Appointed to the “women’s seat” on its board of directors, Bolin was caught up in an internecine power struggle between the national organization and its regional affiliates.
She sided with the regions, and before long the NAACP tried to force her out. Bolin stood her ground — briefly accepting a vice-presidential position, until she determined that it amounted to little more than figurehead status — and while the organization succeeded in getting rid of her, it came only after a fight that played out for months in the African-American press.
Daughter of the Empire State is not a lengthy read — just over 100 pages, not counting voluminous endnotes — but it is enlightening and exhaustively researched. I’m a bit ashamed to say that I hadn’t heard of Bolin before reading it, and maybe that’s why a book like this is so important.
It should also put your own professional difficulties into perspective, too. Whatever you may have to put up in a day, it’s nothing compared to what Jane Bolin had to struggle against.