Persona Non-Grata: Judge Jane Matilda Bolin and the NAACP, 1930-1950

Article excerpt

Black women have always boasted a strong presence in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). They have served overwhelmingly as fundraisers and proselytizers tying the organization to the Black community and creating a Black-led NAACP.(2) But a number of Black women have also made their mark as national officers serving as members of the Board of Directors, and as vice-presidents early in the organization's history. Jane Matilda Bolin, the nation's first African American woman judge, is among this small cadre of Black women which includeds such notable educators and clubwomen as Mary McLeod Bethune and Nannie Helen Burroughs.(3) Bolin became a member of the NAACP national leadership in 1943, serving consecutively as a member of the Board of Directors and then as vice-president before resigning in 1950. An active member and officer of the New York Branch of the NAACP and a recent judicial appointee, Bolin's nomination for election to the Board of Directors came as no surprise. Her resignation, however, broke with convention and was dissected in the Black press. The question is therefore not so much how Bolin rose to prominence in the NAACP, but more importantly, how and why she plummeted to the depths of its disregard. She allows us a rare glimpse into the tenure of Black women as national officers in the NAACP. But, an examination of Bolin's positioning within the NAACP leadership also affords us some insight into her philosophy of leadership, its conformity to that of the National Office, and how she became "persona non-grata" to the organizational leadership.

Jane Matilda Bolin, the youngest of four children, was born in 1908 in Poughkeepsie, New York to Matilda Ingram Bolin and Gaius Charles Bolin. The Bolins were an activist family, who were descendents of a long line of free Duchess County Black residents that had lived in and around Poughkeepsie for nearly 200 years.(4) Her father was a prominent lawyer and community leader, who was instrumental in establishing the Duchess County Branch of the NAACP in 1931, for which her brother, Gaius Charles Bolin, Jr., was named founding president.(5) Jane Bolin's involvement with the NAACP was nurtured at home where she read the Crisis regularly as a child and became aware that there were people like W.E.B. DuBois on a national level and her father on a local level "who were uncompromising and tireless in fighting for the democratic ideal."(6) Instilled with a similar commitment, Bolin became intimately involved with the New York Branch of the NAACP when she moved to New York City in 1932, a year after graduating from Yale Law School.

Following her graduation from Yale Bolin returned to her hometown of Poughkeepsie, where she practiced with her father and brother, Gaius Jr., who had graduated from New York University Law School in 1927. Serving a mostly white clientele since he first hung his shingle in 1901, her father managed to build a very lucrative practice in Poughkeepsie. Jane Bolin was therefore afforded an opportunity to practice available to few Black women lawyers in the 1930s. But having no delusions about her professional success as a Black woman lawyer in Poughkeepsie, she moved to New York City. As she explained, "I did not see the opportunity in Poughkeepsie to bring to fruition the aspirations and ambitions and dreams I have had from my childhood."(7)

In New York City, Bolin practiced law with her husband Ralph Mizelle for several years before running unsuccessfully in 1936 on the Republican ticket for the New York State Assembly for the Nineteenth District. Although unsuccessful, Bolin's candidacy bought her some political currency which paid off in 1937 with an appointment to the New York City Law Department as an Assistant Corporation Counsel, and two years later with a judicial appointment to the Domestic Relations Court for a ten-year term. As an Assistant Corporation Counsel and Domestic Relations Court judge, Bolin's service was both timely and indispensable to the city's Black community, which was made the subject of a 1934 study commissioned by the presiding justice of the city's Domestic Relations Court. …