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WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass., Feb. 12, 2002–Just over 100 years ago, in 1885, the first black student entered Williams, beginning what would become a success story not only for him but also for the college, as is evidenced by Williams’ commitment to diversity today.
The story of Gaius Charles Bolin sounds like that of many other Williams students: he came to Williams to learn and not only succeeded academically but also developed a deep devotion for the college, played football, formed lasting friendships with other men in his class, and started a Williams family tradition (his brother and a grandson also attended the college).
Bolin was born in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., one of 13 children descended from a family of freed New York state blacks. As Bolin was growing up, a civil rights law was passed which allowed New York youth to enroll in any public school, regardless of their race. Bolin graduated from the racially integrated Poughkeepsie High School in 1883. His principal, Samuel W. Buck, class of 1867, convinced Bolin to consider Williams College, and after attending Leslie’s Select Classical School in Poughkeepsie, where he took classes in Latin and Greek, Bolin passed the entrance examination to Williams. In 1885, he joined the freshman class of 1889.
Bolin was well-liked by his classmates. He lived off-campus during his freshman year, as several of his classmates did, with a black Williamstown family. When he moved from the house into 3 South College Hall at the beginning of his sophomore year with his newly-matriculated brother, Livingsworth Bolin, his room became a center of interaction for the students living with him. They frequently came to his room to smoke cigars, tell stories, and play cards. In addition, Bolin played for his class football team all four years and competed against schools such as Amherst, M.I.T., and Tufts. His senior year, Bolin was selected to speak by members of his class at class day exercises.
Upon graduating in 1889, Bolin returned to Poughkeepsie. In 1890, Fred Ackerman, a local attorney and member of the Dutchess County Bar, gave Bolin the opportunity to work for him. After studying under Ackerman for two years, Bolin passed his bar exam on the first attempt. He was admitted to the practice of law in 1892 and continued working with Ackerman until 1895, when he opened his own law practice.
Bolin never specialized in any branch of law but was soon known as “a talented and enterprising young lawyer” who was known for being fair and “devot[ed] to the interests of his clients.” Although blacks were among his clients, the majority of his cases came from whites. He often took on cases involving homicide, as in 1909, when he represented two women indicted for first-degree murder.
At Williams, Bolin had declared himself a staunch Republican, and upon his return to Poughkeepsie, he became involved in politics, eventually becoming a supporter of Theodore Roosevelt, New York’s Republican governor at the time. He was appointed to the Board of Managers for the Pan American Exposition to be held in Buffalo in 1901, a position he did not seek, making it all the more an honor for him. This appointment, which came straight from Roosevelt, strengthened the loyalty Bolin felt for the governor, prompting Bolin to warn Roosevelt of his “enemies” working surreptitiously against his re-election.
In addition to his political and judiciary work, Bolin played an active role protesting racial prejudice. He was one of seven Poughkeepsie residents who initially planned to found a branch of the NAACP – with 61 people from the surrounding area, he was one of the founding members in 1931. In 1932 he served on the county’s NAACP Executive Committee.
Bolin was, throughout his life, extremely devoted to his family. In 1899 he married Matilda Emery of New York City. They had four children, two of whom became lawyers. Their daughter, Jane, went to Wellesley College and Yale Law School, where she was one of three women and the only black in her class. In 1939, at the age of 31, Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia appointed her a judge in the Domestic Relations Court of New York City. She was the first black female to be made a judge in the United States. She received an honorary doctorate of law degree from Williams in 1979.
In 1985, Williams College established the Gaius Charles Bolin Fellowship for Minority Graduate Students, a fellowship which allows two minority Ph.D. candidates to teach one course each and to devote the bulk of their time during the academic year to the completion of their doctorate dissertations. In addition, two fellowships are awarded yearly to minority students working in the humanities or in the natural, social, or behavioral sciences and are aimed to encourage minority students to pursue careers in college teaching.