Persona non-grata: Judge Jane Matilda Bolin and the NAACP, 1930-1950.
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. Titled "The Negro Problem as Reflected in the Functioning of the Domestic Relations Court of the City of New York," the study reported that childhood crime among Blacks had risen over the past thirteen years by more than two hundred and forty percent, that in Manhattan fully twenty-five percent of all juveniles arraigned in children's court were Blacks, that more than one-fourth of all nonsupport cases in the city involved Black families, and concluded that "The court [had] not been able for some years satisfactorily to function in cases involving Negro children." (8) The "inability" of the court to function in cases involving African American children was no doubt related to its practice of assigning the cases of African American children to the no more than two African American probation officers on staff. But shortly after coming to the bench, Bolin challenged the race-based practice and successfully engineered its demise with the help of some of her judicial colleagues. In Bolin the Black community had an outspoken and fearless advocate, who did her best to ensure that the court functioned satisfactorily in cases involving Black children. As she saw it, she was a judge "... for the whole city and for all children who are in trouble." (9)
Bolin moved up the organizational ranks of the NAACP almost as quickly as she did the professional ranks of her career. To be sure, her rise in the NAACP appears to have occurred concurrently with her rise in the legal profession. Five years after relocating to New York City, and the same year that she was appointed Assistant Corporation Counsel, she was elected First Vice President of the New York Branch of the NAACP. Working closely with the likes of Judge Hubert Delany and Lindsay White of the New York Branch, she developed a reputation for being an outspoken advocate of the branches. Bolin knew firsthand just how indispensable the branches were to the success of the NAACP. Through countless volunteers the branches had collectively sustained the organization. From fund-raising to membership drives the branches made it possible for the national organization to sustain its commitment to the program of justice. All funds raised by branches were to be shared equally with the National Office. (10) But, Bolin believed that the national office did not always appreciate the branches' commitment to the program of the NAACP. For years, she observed and criticized what she saw as the prevailing attitude that "the branches should raise money for the national organization and do whatever work they are asked to do by the national organization but are arrogantly overstepping their bounds if they make suggestions or protests to the national office." (11)
Much like Ella Baker, a former Field Secretary and Director of Branches, Bolin adhered to the principles of "participatory democracy," and as such resented what she saw as the "contemptuous and scornful attitude on the part of the paid staff and a majority of the Board toward the NAACP Branches and people who work in the branches." (12) Throughout her membership and vice-presidency in the New York Branch she remained unequivocal in her support of the branches and her conviction that the NAACP adhere to its democratic principles within its own organizational structure, because as she saw it, "An authoritative set-up, whether Fascist, Communist, or NAACP is abhorrent." (13)
Bolin was serving as Second Vice-President of the New York Branch in 1943 when Executive Secretary Walter White, Assistant Executive Secretary Roy Wilkins, and Special Counsel Thurgood Marshall nominated her for "the woman member of the Board of Directors for whom the Committee on Nominations left a vacancy." (14) In their memorandum to the nominating committee they acknowledged that "Judge Jane M. Bolin of New York City, who both herself and through her family, has had a long record of hard work for the N.A.A.C.P. is particularly skilled in the problems of domestic relations, being the first colored woman to be appointed to the Domestic Relations Court in New York City." (15) Not surprisingly, her first appointment as a Board member was to the Committee on Delinquency, where she worked closely with Judge Hubert Delany who shared many of her concerns about the branches. Bolin's standing in the legal community and her proven commitment to the NAACP clearly influenced the executive officers' decision to nominate her. But maybe, a nomination was also intended to curtail her unusual outspokenness in behalf of the branches by bringing her into the fold of the National Office. To one less committed, membership in the national leadership may have signaled an end to branch advocacy. But, Bolin remained unflinching in her advocacy of the branches, and saw no contradiction in taking that advocacy to the National Office. Her support of the branches, as she saw it, was not at variance with her membership in the national leadership.
Like Judge Bolin, Judge Hubert Delany, and A. Philip Randolph were New York Branch leaders who also held positions in the National Office. And, like her, they saw no contradiction in their concurrent service. But to many they wore hats of competing authority. Understandably, disagreement over and dissatisfaction with the exercise of authority were inevitable, as with any decision-making institution. But, being housed in the same municipality seems to have compounded whatever disagreements there were between the New York Branch and the National Office, which, through its Acting Secretary Roy Wilkins, regularly questioned the loyalty of its Board members who were too vocal on Branch issues. In a three-page tirade Wilkins once accused Delany of being "an outright spokesman and protagonist for the New York Branch" while serving as a national board member. (16) Wilkins was even accused of verbally spanking the president of the New York Branch, Lindsay White, "as though he were a school boy" because he requested strict protocol in the matter of an independent petition. (17) Delany had worked particularly close with the New York Branch to effect better working relations between it and the National Office, but he detected only deep resentment on the part of the latter for "attempting to revitalize the effectiveness of the Association and to bring the branches and the National Office into closer harmony." (18)
While thoroughly committed to the NAACP ideologically, in administrative matters Bolin frequently challenged, what Christopher Reed refers to as, the "principle of centrality" which left the branches in a perpetually subordinate position to the National Office. (19) As a New York Branch officer, she called attention to innumerable complaints that were made by branches about the dismissive attitude with which their correspondence to the National Office was treated. (20) She recognized the damaging effect that such an attitude could have on branch operations, and even attributed the NAACP's declining membership to that attitude. As a Board member she challenged the Association's published membership of 500,000, suggesting instead that 150,000 was a more accurate number of the Association's membership in 1949. (21) But, refusing to attribute the decrease in membership to any "high and mighty" attitude of the National Office, Wilkins pointed instead to the inordinate latitude permitted in the operations of local branches, identifying maladministration in the Chicago branch, high salaries and an ineffective local program in Detroit, a strike against a 15-year branch president in Los Angeles, and what he saw as failed membership drives in the New York branch, as reasons for the declining membership. (22)
Never willing to turn a blind eye to Board misconduct, Bolin's tenure as a member of the Board soon became oppositional. "I could not sanction the paid staff overwhelming the Board to the extent of usurping the Board's function of making policy," she wrote to Arthur Spingarn in 1950. "Nor could I condone the practice of Executive Secretary, as revealed by a member of the Board, calling together in advance of a Board meeting a secret gathering of a selected few Board members to inform them what would be on the agenda at the Board meeting and what action he wanted the Board to take." (23) This oppositional positioning soon made her "persona non-grata" to the NAACP hierarchy. In 1949, after serving twelve years on the Executive Committee of the New York Branch and five years on the National Board of Directors, Bolin was summarily dropped as a Board member. In what appears to have been a very contentious Committee meeting, three members voted for Bolin's re-nomination to the Board and three voted against her re-nomination with the Chairman of the Nominating Committee, Dr. J. L. Leach, breaking the tie. By a four to three decision, the Nominating Committee voted not to re-nominate Bolin, later citing as its reason the over-representation of the New York Branch on the Board. According to Leach, it was his thinking and the thinking of the majority of the Committee members that in an effort to strengthen the forces of the NAACP "an effort should be made to spread out and extend to other areas some of the places on the National Board, and, in as much as New York holds the largest majority of members on the Board and with no ideas to engage in any New York squabble or controversy" Judge Bolin was not re-nominated but was recommended and selected for a vice-presidency. (24)
At the time of the Nominating Committee's decision to not re-nominate Bolin, she was one of fourteen New York Branch members who were also National Board members. Most of the other cities that were represented on the National Board had one member each, with Washington, D. C. and Chicago having four and two Board members respectively. Alfred Baker Lewis, another member of the Nominating Committee, also felt that the New York Branch was overrepresented on the National Board. In a letter to an inquiring Branch President from West Virginia, he stated that the consensus in the Association was for increased Board representation of areas outside of New York, "in view of the great growth in membership, principally outside of New York" and that to effect "this rather general desire it was necessary to leave out at least some of the New York members." (25) To this end the Nominating Committee agreed on five replacements after consideration of the sixteen Board members whose terms expired, and the five new nominations for Board membership in 1949 represented branches outside of New York, specifically Charlotte, North Carolina, Washington, D. C., Savannah, Georgia, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and Kansas City, Missouri. (26)
However, the Committee's split over the selection of Bolin for removal had made suspect an otherwise routine and reasonable decision to make the National Board more representative. Judge Bolin, a celebrity in her own right and activist Board member with an excellent attendance record, had clearly met and surpassed the Committee's consideration of the "all-around value to the NAACP of a Board member's service--whether of prestige, work or influence." (27) As a result, her removal evoked strong opposition from branch and Board member alike, and ignited an intra-organizational conflict that spilled over onto the pages of the Black press. Early opposition to the Nominating Committee's decision was engineered by Judge Delany, a member of the Nominating Committee, who was also a New York Branch officer and National Board member. According to Leach, Delany "threatened to attack the National Office and the Nominating Committee and put on a National campaign unless Mrs. Bolin Was left on [the Board.]" (28) What followed was a national campaign spearheaded by the New York and Jamaica branches to reelect Bolin to the National Board by independent petition.
The campaign of the New York and Jamaica branches got a jumpstart when news of the Nominating Committee's failure to re-nominate Bolin was leaked to the newspapers. A week after the Committee's decision the Afro-American ran a story headlined "REMOVAL OF JUDGE BOLIN FROM NAACP BOARD BARED." (29) According to the unidentified source, Judge Bolin had not been recommended for another term on the Board after a staff meeting was called at the National Office and it was decided that "Bolin has to go." (30) It was further reported that two top staff members at that meeting opposed Judge Bolin's continuation as a Board member on the ground that "we can't get along with her." (31) The implication of Executive staff influence or interference in the decisions of the Nominating Committee fueled rumors and whispers about the independence of the Nominating Committee, and about its decision to not re-nominate Bolin. What was intended to be strictly internal Association business, not yet shared with the branches, had suddenly become available for public consumption and criticism. Furthermore, neither the standing Board collectively, nor Judge Bolin individually, had been notified of the Committee's decision. As such, Bolin found out about her ouster in the morning paper.
Two days later, the Board of Directors called a meeting, where Judge Bolin spoke on a point of personal privilege. She made it clear that she had accepted, and therefore was not addressing, the Nominating Committee's decision not to re-nominate her for Board membership. As she saw it, the lack of priority, good taste and courtesy was obvious. "To date I have not been officially notified of the failure of the Committee on Nominations to redesignate me--although the press was notified at once," she told the Board, and intimated that the information must have been given to the press by a member of the staff who was present at both the staff meeting and the meeting of the Nominating Committee. (32) She did not ask for action to be taken against the party or parties responsible for the leak, but reminded the Board that "one of the most outstanding members of our race and a founder of the NAACP, Dr. DuBois, was summarily dismissed by this Board for letting something get to the press before it had gone through the proper channels." (33) Less concerned about the lack of respect shown her, Bolin was more concerned about the interference of the staff in the business of the Nominating Committee. "Since I have been on this Board," she told the Board of Directors, "I have been called on by people who are nationally known in the field of social action to justify the domination of the organization by the staff," which in her estimation was a complete reversal of the traditional functions of the board making policy and the staff executing policy. (34) According to Bolin, it was a case of "the tail wagging the dog rather than the dog wagging the tail" and one that imputed to the Board "a reputation for being a supine board of puppets which does everything expected of us by the executive secretary [Walter White] and his staff." (35)
The Board had been made vulnerable because of the recent leak. Yet, no sooner had the October 10th meeting adjourned than there appeared in the Amsterdam News an article detailing matters discussed at the meeting with specific reference to the remarks made by Judge Bolin. The seriousness of the ongoing leak was not lost on the National Office, which acknowledged that someone was giving out information that was detrimental to the NAACP, and accused the Board of creating publicity that was hurting the Association and "which is making it very difficult to carry on a program." (36) Bolin agreed, and said as much to the Board in the October meeting when she stated, "I must say that we are not meeting the obligation we have to the masses of the people ... people who are clamoring for the attention of this association, but are not receiving it." (37) Once leaked, Bolin's criticism of the NAACP seemed to mobilize the branches even as it alienated the National Office. One Atlanta newspaper likened Judge Bolin to Dr. DuBois, noting that they were both generally regarded as "persona non grata" at national headquarters of the NAACP.
The Nominating Committee could not have foreseen the magnitude of public discourse that would emanate from their decision. Neither could they have anticipated the vigor with which Bolin's supporters would pursue her reelection to the Board. The Committee probably imagined some minor opposition from within the Board, which they clearly hoped to quell with their recommendation and election of Bolin for a vice-presidency. But their fumbling was transparent and the branches said as much in their campaign to reelect Bolin. After securing Bolin's name on the ballot with well over the thirty signatures required, (38) the New York Branch cautioned all branch presidents "Do not be fooled by the offer of the Nominating Committee to make Judge Bolin a Vice-President of the N.A.A.C.P. This is part of their plan to continue to use Judge Bolin's name and prestige for the benefit of the N.A.A.C.P. while depriving her of participating in making Board policy." (39) The New York Branch considered its campaign to be "the call to action of every Branch as we face a great democratic crisis in the N.A.A.C.P.," and asked all branch presidents to bring the matter of Bolin's reelection to the attention of their Executive Committee and their membership at the annual meeting before the ballot was distributed and before the votes were cast for the members of the national Board of Directors. (40)
Not willing to defer completely to the election process, the Chairman and Secretary of the Nominating Committee had earlier sent out their own letter of caution to the branches. Craftily worded, the letter asked the branches to vote for the nominees of the Nominating Committee and to ignore the petition of the New York Branch, which it said was trying to undermine the Committee. (41) Since this letter was sent out in an official capacity, it purported to represent the entire Committee and the National Office as a whole. Yet, there were several national officers, including Judge Delany, James Allen, William Lloyd Imes, and Earl Dickerson, who endorsed the letter from the New York Branch to all NAACP branch presidents In their estimation members of the Nominating Committee had gone to great lengths to deny the NAACP an outstanding leader in Judge Bolin, and had in effect attempted "to prevent the election of any candidates nominated by the Branch by independent petition as provided for in the N.A.A.C.P. Constitution." (42) Still, it was up to the Association's membership, "the principal stockholders," to decide who would represent them on the National Board of Directors.
Nevertheless, how were branches to decide given the conflicting and inflammatory nature of the correspondence from the Nominating Committee and the New York Branch? Which letters were branches supposed to believe? Could they accept the recommendation of the New York Branch without appearing to undermine the Nominating Committee? Could they obtain unbiased clarification of issues raised in the letters from the Nominating Committee and the New York Branch? Would raising questions about these issues automatically make their branch suspect in the eyes of the National Office? These were only a few of the questions that confronted the branches, and if they hoped to have a truly informed ballot those and many more questions would have to be answered. The Merrimack Valley Branch in Andover, Massachusetts tabled their voting until such time as all issues raised in both letters were addressed by the National Office. In a letter to the National Office, the Merrimack Valley Branch President said, "As it stands now, no one knows whether to believe that the Committee actually did act in the best interests of the Association,--did consider each nominee fairly. Whom do we believe? Do you feel that this is the sort of action that builds confidence in our National Staff? Do you realize that this questionable business offers just the argument needed for those who are reluctant to join?--that it is just this sort of childish bickering that has many of your supporting branches on their heels?" (43) Merrimack Valley was not alone in its frustration. Nevertheless the branches supported the Committee's nominees overwhelmingly. As a result, at the January 3rd, 1950 annual Association meeting, the campaign to reelect Judge Bolin to the National Board of Directors came to a disappointing end, and Bolin was elected as one of the vice-presidents of the NAACP. However, far from settling the matter, Bolin's vice-presidency marked another chapter in the already heated debate over her positioning in the national leadership.
In his letter of congratulations, Wilkins told Bolin, "Because of your interest and activity in the past, we are confident that in the capacity of vice-president you will continue to give us [NAACP] your advice and support in the many matters that will come before the Association." (44) Unclear about the vague responsibility of giving "advice and support," Bolin sought clarity on the function of the office and the extent of her policy-making authority as a vice-president. Referring to Article IV, Section 2 of the NAACP Constitution, which stated "The Vice President shall perform such functions and exercise such duties as may be voted by the Board of Directors," Bolin requested that Wilkins send her a copy of the minutes of the meeting when the Board would have determined the functions and duties of Vice-Presidents of the Association. (45) This request sparked a new flame of contention, not wholly unrelated to the issue of her reelection. Indeed, many in the National Office saw Bolin's inquiry as an ongoing vendetta against the National Office and an affront to the Board's graciousness in selecting her for a vice-presidency.
The Board had never formally determined what the particular functions and duties of vice-presidents would be, nor had it assigned vice-presidents to any specific tasks. The National Office had taken the position that vice-presidents had no constitutionally-assigned duties but that, at the discretion of the Board, vice-presidents could be assigned duties as the need arose. Bolin found this "inconceivable and inconsistent that there should be an office in an organization without duties" and concluded that since the Board had failed to state specifically the functions of a vice-president that the generally conceived and publicly accepted meaning of the office be recognized by the NAACP. (46) She believed that to do otherwise would be to mislead the public, which she felt had a right to believe that any person who accepted election as an officer in the NAACP "shared in the grave responsibility of making the Association's policy and in the general administration of its affairs." (47) She was not alone in her interpretation because as she recalled, "during my six years as a member of the Board I have observed Vice Presidents attending Board meetings, expressing their valuable opinions and participating in the voting." (48) Accordingly, she accepted the vice-presidency "with its concomitant responsibilities, including those of attending Board meetings and discussing and voting on the business of the Association." (49) Therefore, she was most confounded when, at the February 14th National Board of Directors meeting, she raised her hand to vote against a motion and was told by the Chairman of the Board that as a vice-president she was ineligible to vote on the affairs of the Association. (50) Bolin saw the restriction as contrary to past practice, and immediately excused herself from the meeting, stating that she had neither the time nor the desire to sit and listen to the discussions "unless she was able to participate by voting." (51)
When Bolin exited the February 14th meeting she had already made the decision to resign, but her resignation however quick would not be quiet. Hers was a very public resignation; one that exposed deep fissures in the organization, and one that confirmed earlier reports that like Dr. DuBois she had become "persona non grata" at national headquarters of the NAACP. On March 9th, 1950, a little more than three months after being named a vice-president, Judge Bolin submitted her letter of resignation to NAACP President, Arthur Spingarn, but not before releasing copies of the letter to the Black press. Her resignation had become a public platform to challenge the structure, program, policies, and personnel of the NAACP. More than an accounting of her reasons for resigning, Bolin's letter of resignation was a series of scathing indictments against the NAACP leadership. She charged the NAACP with deceit in advertising, claiming that "the twenty Vice Presidents (a ridiculous number) are merely names on NAACP letterheads, used to lend prestige to the association and to mislead the public that these persons have responsibility in formulating policy." (52) She criticized the paid staff for "overwhelming the Board to the extent of usurping the Board's function of making policy," and condemned the organizational leadership for their prevailing attitude "that the Branches should raise money for the national organization and do whatever they are asked to do by the national organization but are arrogantly overstepping their bounds if they make suggestions or protests to the national office." (53) "An authoritarian set-up," she said, "whether it is Fascist, Communist or NAACP, is abhorrent to me, and I feel that the NAACP can ill afford to oppose democratic procedures within its own organizational set-up." (54) But most damning was her declaration that the NAACP had become sterile and barren. "The only part of the NAACP which is not programmatically bankrupt today" she said, "is its legal department which is doing an important and superb job." (55)
Surprised, discomfited, and exposed, the National Office struggled to maintain its composure amid the deluge of newspaper inquiries. In the meantime, Judge Bolin's letter stood "as a true statement of conditions" in the absence of any other to refute it. (56) To the Norfolk Journal and Guide's request to "PLEASE IMMEDIATELY WIRE COMMENT ON RESIGNATION STATEMENT RELEASED BY JUSTICE BOLIN STATEMENT ATTACKS POLICY OF NAACP TOP COMMAND ETC.," Wilkins responded, "BOLIN LETTER RELEASED TO PRESS BEFORE IT REACHED BOARD YESTERDAY. REGRET I CANNOT COMMENT. HOWEVER STATEMENT FROM DR. LOUIS T. WRIGHT, CHAIRMAN OF BOARD, WILL BE RELEASED IN TWENTY-FOUR HOURS." There was similar correspondence from and to Durham, North Carolina's Carolina Times, Kansas, Missouri's The Call, the Afro-American, and the New York Amsterdam News, but Wilkins realized that the longer the Board waited to publicly address Bolin's letter the more it would have to prove. (57) Indeed, one editorial in the Afro-American was concerned that "the future of the NAACP seems to be definitely in jeopardy." (58) The editor of the Carolina Times informed Wilkins that Bolin's letter "will seriously handicap the NAACP activity in his state where they are instituting a number of suits." (59) Similar concerns were raised in other newspapers, whose headlines ranged from the dramatic "NAACP Branded Sterile, Barren Judge Bolin Rips Officers And Quits Job" of the New York Amsterdam News and "Justice Jane Bolin Quits NAACP: Blasts 'Contemptuous Attitude'" of the New York Age to "Judge Jane Bolin Quits NAACP: Protests Lack of Power Of Vice President" of The Call.
The New York press linked this latest fallout immediately to the earlier removal of Judge Bolin from the Board of Directors, and suggested that Bolin's resignation was actually expected in New York circles. The New York Age, for example, spoke of a "long simmering feud between Domestic Relations Justice Jane Bolin and national officers of the NAACP." (60) To minimize the damage the Board sought to have Bolin reconsider her resignation, but Wilkins quickly realized that should Bolin retract her resignation then the Board's hands would be tied to criticize her views publicly. As a result, the Chairman of the Board released his comments to the press before the Board conferred with Bolin about a possible retraction. Taken as a whole, Wright's comments foiled any chance for a retraction. He accused Bolin of acting in bad faith, and stated that her actions suggest strongly that her "principal purpose was not to discuss a point of difference with the Association and its Board, but to attack the organization itself." He stated further that the fact that Bolin released her letter of resignation to the press prior to its receipt by the Board of Directors "indicates it was not written to protest a difference of opinion, but was deliberately calculated to attack and injure the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People." (61)
The Board's response did not neutralize the impact of Bolin's letter. Not only had the newspapers given more coverage to Bolin's letter than the Board's response. They had in some instances published the Board's reply but had, according to Wilkins, continued to "heap praise upon Judge Bolin's calculated attack upon the Association." (62) For example, the Cleveland Call and Post "Down the Big Road" column, which was intended to address the National Office's position, stated in its opening paragraph, "Judge Jane Bolin of the New York City Domestic Relations Court has done a real service to the NAACP by resigning. Her letter of resignation from the national board as one of its twenty vice-presidents brings out into the open, most of the complaints hundreds of other members have been making but have not been able to get into public print as did Judge Bolin." The writer then congratulated Judge Bolin for showing independence and voting her conscience and for having the courage to resent being made a "figurehead or stooge." (63)
Bolin had pierced the veil of this corporate body from the inside out. In the process she had also exposed the weaknesses of an organization that needed to be strong for all African Americans. Many praised her for her courage and commitment, but others condemned her for criticizing the NAACP publicly. In a letter to the Chairman of the Board, one NAACP member from New York City said how grieved he was to read of "Judge Jane M. Bolin's attack on the NAACP," and complained that while he could not pretend to comment on any of the issues involved he felt that "this method of airing differences can be more harmful than helpful." (64) Such condemnation was not uncommon in the Black community. According to scholars of the Black press, throughout the civil rights struggle a price was paid, and sometimes "it was the pain of a race member going 'outside' to air criticisms that most preferred to keep within the ranks." (65) Such was the price and pain of this episode. Yet, there is no easy accounting of that inflicted on Bolin. One memorandum from an NAACP member and self-identified expert witness for the Justice Department on policies, program, activities, teachings, and philosophy of the Communist Party and front organizations since 1937, captures the brunt of what she endured. Addressed to the Editor of the Pittsburgh Courier, the NAACP Acting Secretary Roy Wilkins, and the New York Branch Secretary Charles Levy, the memorandum bade good riddance to Judge Bolin then urged her resignation from the Family Court as well because of what was labeled her penchant for "Commy causes." (66)
Bolin risked more than a Board membership and a vice-presidency in the NAACP in her crusade to expose and hopefully correct the inconsistencies in the Association. In her fight for "participatory democracy" she risked her livelihood and her career. Her 1949 judicial reappointment by Mayor O'Dwyer was a difficult one. She did not need the added attention and "commy" labels during a mayoral administration framed by, what Thomas Kessner reminds us was, the era of the Cold War mentality, the fears that led to the excesses of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), of the new conservatism, and of the passing of insurgency politics. (67) Bolin's outspokenness was, therefore, as out of place and dangerous in the era of the Cold War as it was in the NAACP. Yet, she considered this a small price to pay for "informing the membership of some internal conditions which appeared to me," she said, "to need correction, if our Association is to be the effective and powerful instrument we want and need." (68)
Bolin's legacy with the NAACP has only just begun to unfold. It can undoubtedly be debated through her positioning as Charter Member, Branch Official, Board member, Vice-President, or persona non-grata to the NAACP. Though the expansive contours of her organizational life is susceptible to portrayal as conventional or insurgent, her tenure in the NAACP characterizes her palpable commitment to both the democratic ideals of the NAACP and the philosophy of "participatory democracy" without contradiction. Her philosophy, however, clashed with that of the national office which apparently drew a line of separation and importance between itself and the branches if not the masses of the people. The uniqueness or ordinariness of Bolin's experience as an outspoken leader is still unfolding. No longer obscure, however, it provides a model for understanding the experience of other women in leadership positions in the NAACP, and the culture of such leadership. Persona non-grata or esteemed colleague, her tenure offers a glimpse into the experience of Black women in the national leadership of the NAACP.
(2) See Dorothy Salem, "Black Women and the NAACP, 1909-1922: An Encounter with Race, Class, and Gender," in Kim Marie Vaz, ed., Black Women in America (California: SAGE Publications, 1995), 54-70, especially 59. The NAACP counted Black women among its executive staff as Branch Directors, Youth Secretaries and Field Secretaries.
(3) Mary McLeod Bethune and Nannie Helen Burroughs were among the few African American women who served as vice-presidents in the NAACP. Forty years after its founding there were at least six Black women in the national leadership.
(4) Dennis Clark Dickerson, "Gaius Charles Bolin: The First Black Graduate of Williams College," Williams Alumni Review.
(5) There were a total of sixty-one people from Poughkeepsie, Clinton Corners, Salt Point, and two nearby communities. NAACP Branch Files, Poughkeepsie Folder, 1932-34, NAACP Papers, Library of Congress, Manuscript Division, Washington, D.C. Hereinafter referred to as NAACP Branch Files.
(6) "Speech in Honor of DuBois," Speeches Folder, Box 3, Bolin Papers, Box 3, Schomburg Center, New York Public Library. Hereinafter referred to as Bolin Papers.
(7) Interview with Rudd, Box 1, Bolin Papers. As a child she hung around her father's office and dreamed of becoming a lawyer.
(8) Thomas Kessner, Fiorello H. LaGuardia and the Making of Modern New York (New York: McGraw-Hill Publishing Company, 1989), 371-373. For as thorough as the study was purported to be it neglected to identify the circumstances that gave rise to the disproportionate presence of Black children in the court system. The Depression had made a poor situation worse in Harlem. With unemployment among African Americans being two and three times the rate of whites, many men, unable to secure jobs, abandoned their families, while women forced to work outside of the home, left young children to sometimes fend for themselves
(9) See Emma Bugbee, "Justice Jane M. Bolin Shuns Glib Diagnoses of Child Crime," New York Herald Tribune 18 April, 1943.
(10) NAACP Branch Files, New York Folder.
(11) Bolin to Arthur Spingarn, 9 March 1950, Box 3, Bolin Papers.
(12) Ibid. Also see Joanne Grant, Ella Baker: Freedom Bound (New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1998), especially Chapters 3, 4 and 5.
(14) Memorandum to Nominating Committee, 29 December 1943, Board of Director folder, NAACP Papers.
(16) Roy Wilkins to Hubert Delany, 18 November 1949, NAACP Branch Files, New York Folder, NAACP Papers.
(17) The matter of the independent petition to re-nominate Bolin will be addressed later in the article, but suffice it to say at this point that Roy Wilkins was wholly against Bolin's re-nomination. Hubert Delany to Roy Wilkins, 9 November 1949, NAACP Branch Files, New York Folder.
(19) Christopher Robert Reed, The Chicago NAACP and the Rise of Black Professional Leadership, 1910-1966 (Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1997), 68.
(20) Bolin to Arthur Spingarn, 9 March 1950, NAACP Branch Files.
(21) Ibid.; Delany to Wilkins, 9 November 1949, NAACP Branch Files.
(22) Wilkins to Delany, 18 November 1949, NAACP Branch Files.
(23) Bolin to Spingarn, 9 March 1950, Box 3, Bolin Papers.
(24) J. L. Leach to L. H. Richardson, 6 December 1949, NAACP Branch Files. Mr. Leach was the Chairman of the Nominating Committee which voted not to re-nominate Judge Bolin, and Mr. Richardson was president of the West Virginia Branch. At the September 29th meeting three members voted for Bolin's re-nomination and three voted against it, with the Chairman breaking the tie against re-nomination.
(25) Alfred Baker Lewis to L. H. Richardson, 2, December 1949, NAACP Branch Files.
(26) Nominating Committee to Branch Officers, 14 November 1949, NAACP Branch Files.
(28) Leach to Richardson, 6 December 1949.
(29) The Afro-American, 8 October 1949, pages 1 and 2, Clipping File, Box 3, Bolin Papers.
(32) Minutes of Board of Directors Meeting, 10 October, 1949, NAACP Board of Directors Files, Jane Bolin Folder, NAACP Papers.
(33) Ibid. In obvious reference to the treatment of DuBois for his statements to the press in his capacity as editor.
(35) Ibid. She was no doubt referring to the most recent incident surrounding the selection of Roy Wilkins as acting executive secretary, which was released to the press days before the Board meeting when such selection was scheduled to be made.
(36) Minutes of Meeting of the Board of Directors, 14 November 1949, NAACP Board of Director Files, Jane Bolin Folder, NAACP Papers. It is interesting that Wilkins was now willing to consider the effects of bad Board publicity on the operations of the Association, branch and national office, when not too long ago he dismissed similar concerns raised by the New York Branch.
(37) Board of Directors Meeting, 10 October 1949, NAACP Board of Director File, Jane Bolin Folder, NAACP Papers.
(38) NAACP Branch Files, New York Branch Folder, NAACP Papers. Submitted October 28, the New York Branch's nominating petition had close to one hundred signatures, and included those of Nominating Committee member, Hubert Delany, New York Branch President Lindsay White, National Assistant Treasurer Channing Tobias, and Ella Baker.
(39) Delany, Imes, Dickerson, Allen, and White to Branch Presidents, 16 November 1949, NAACP Board of Director Files, Jane Bolin Folder, NAACP Papers. Hereinafter referred to as New York Branch to Branch Presidents.
(41) Dr. Leach and Daisy Lampkin to Branch Officers, 28 October 1949, and 14 November 1949, NAACP Branch Files, New York Branch Folder, NAACP Papers.
(42) New York Branch to Branch Presidents.
(43) Sgd. Everett Lawrence to Chairman of the Nominating Committee, 21 November 1949, NAACP Branch Files, New York Branch Folder, NAACP Papers.
(44) Wilkins to Bolin, 10 January 1950, NAACP Board of Directors Files, Jane Bolin Folder, NAACP Papers.
(45) Bolin to Wilkins, 11 January 1950, NAACP Board of Directors Files, Jane Bolin Folder, NAACP Papers.
(46) Bolin to Louis T. Wright, 8 February 1950, Box 3, Bolin Papers.
(49) Ibid. Bolin copied this letter to several vice-presidents, many of whom responded favorably to her position on the customary duties and responsibilities of vice-presidents in the NAACP.
(50) Minutes of Board of Directors Meeting, 14 February 1950, NAACP Board of Directors Files, Jane Bolin Folder, NAACP Papers. It was at this meeting that the Board decided that vice-presidents could not vote. It relied mainly on a memorandum from Thurgood Marshall that concluded that as a membership corporation, the control of the organization was in the Board of Directors only.
(52) Bolin to Spingarn, 9 March 1950, NAACP Board of Directors Files, Jane Bolin Folder, NAACP Papers.
(56) Wilkins to Louis Wright, 15 March 1950, NAACP Board of Directors Files, Jane Bolin Folder, NAACP Papers.
(57) Ibid; Telegrams from Norfolk Journal and Guide, the Carolina Times to the National Office, 13 March 1950, Box 3, Bolin Papers.
(58) Editorial, 18 March 1950, Afro-American.
(60) "Justice Jane Bolin Quits NAACP: Blasts 'Contemptuous Attitude'," 18 March 1950, New York Age, Clipping File, Box 3, Bolin Papers.
(61) "Statement on Judge Jane M. Bolin's Letter," by Dr. Louis T. Wright, Chairman of the Board of the NAACP, 15 March 1950, NAACP Board of Directors Files, Jane Bolin Folder, NAACP Papers.
(62) Wilkins to William O. Walker, 20 April 1950, NAACP Board of Directors Files, Jane Bolin Folder, NAACP Papers.
(64) Denton J. Brooks, Jr. to Wright, 23 March 1950, NAACP Board of Directors Files, Jane Bolin Folder, NAACP Papers.
(65) Armistead S. Pride and Clint C. Wilson, II, A History of the Black Press (Washington: Howard University Press, 1997), 222-223.
(66) Charles White to the Editor, Pittsburg Courier, 20 March 1950, NAACP Board of Directors Files, Jane Bolin Folder, NAACP Papers.
(67) Thomas Kessner Fiorello H. La Guardia and the Making of Modern New York (New York: McGraw-Hill Publishing Company, 1989), 570-572.
(68) "Bolin Resignation Not Yet Accepted by NAACP," Journal and Guide, Clipping File, Box 3, Bolin Papers.
Jacqueline A. McLeod (1)
(1) Jacqueline McLeod is Assistant Professor of History at Western Illinois University.
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|Title Annotation:||National Association for the Advancement of Colored People|
|Author:||McLeod, Jacqueline A.|
|Publication:||Afro-Americans in New York Life and History|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2005|
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