Many Williams alumni know that Gaius C. Bolin, Class of 1889, was Williams’ first black graduate. He was, of course, a great deal more.
When Lauren Hobby ’10 visited Williams with her family in 1998, it was the first time she could recall setting foot on a college campus. “Afterwards,” she says, “that was how I always pictured college: the red bricks, the snow, the ivy.”
Her family had come to see artist Faith Ringgold’s story quilt celebrating the 100th anniversary of the graduation of the college’s first black student—Hobby’s great-great-grandfather, Gaius C. Bolin. Almost a decade later, Hobby was back on campus, studying art history and American studies, leading tours at the college museum, jogging around Stone Hill in the afternoons and exploring questions of race and belonging.
“There were a lot of conversations at Williams among black students about how we could be more comfortable there,” she says. “But my family had been there for over 100 years. I refused to feel like I didn’t belong in these spaces.”
Hobby’s experience owed much to the man whose image is featured on the story quilt. Bolin arrived in Williamstown in 1885 by way of Poughkeepsie, N.Y., as the first and only black student on campus. His brother Livingsworth joined him a year later.
It’s unclear what if any practices or policies the college may have had regarding admission of African-American students before that time. But a door had opened, and by the start of the 20th century, a very small but growing number of young black men were making their way to Williams. Like Bolin, many came at the recommendation of a teacher or mentor. And they went on to successful careers in fields including education, medicine and, as was the case with Bolin, law.
Over the years the college has celebrated Bolin’s legacy with reunions and a fellowship in his name, established 30 years ago to serve graduate students of color. This April 8-10, Williams will mark the 130th anniversary of his matriculation with a weekend of discussions, performances and workshops.
In that same spirit, Williams Magazine set out to learn more about Bolin, visiting Williams’ archives and Poughkeepsie’s Adriance Memorial Library and Dutchess County Historical Society. Books, letters, contemporary newspaper articles and interviews with two of his living relatives—Hobby and Lionel Bolin ’48, Gaius’ grandson—also informed the research.
“I’ve heard about him my whole life,” Hobby says of her great-great-grandfather. “I’m currently in law school [at Yale], and, starting with Gaius, that will make me the fifth generation of lawyers in my family.”
Lionel, a retired lawyer who grew up in Poughkeepsie, says Gaius was “as much of a father to me as my own father was.” Lionel remembers his grandfather, fresh from the office in a wool suit and starched collar, fishing with him in a rented rowboat on nearby Lake Walton. In late summers, Gaius would take Lionel and a cousin crabbing on the grand estuary of the Hudson River, hunting for sea life in the salty waters down at Peekskill.
Bolin roots ran deep in the Hudson Valley. Gaius’ father, Abram Bolin, grew up in a farming family in Dover Plains, 20 miles east of Poughkeepsie, and became a respected local merchant and activist in the black community. Though his own formal education was scant, Abram had deep faith in the power of schooling. That faith was shared by his wife, Alice Ann Lawrence, who was educated by family friends in New York City and later worked to support the integration of Poughkeepsie’s public schools. Neither of Gaius’ parents went to college, but he inherited their belief and passed it on. In her family, Hobby says, “We understood that education was a very deep-set priority and a privilege.”
Gaius C. Bolin was born Sept. 10, 1864, seven months before Lee surrendered at Appomattox and effectively ended the Civil War. On the same date, the Poughkeepsie Daily Eagle (motto: “Neutral in Nothing”) ran an advertisement for steamboat passage to New York City for 25 cents and an endorsement of Abraham Lincoln of Illinois for president. Lincoln had issued the Emancipation Proclamation two years earlier, and the social and legal standing of African Americans was tenuous at best.
Still, Bolin described the Poughkeepsie of his childhood as a place of “rural friendliness and neighborliness,” and it’s easy to imagine him gazing out on the Hudson—60 feet deep and more than a half-mile wide at Poughkeepsie—a river he later called “one of the handsomest in the world.” As a teenager he likely helped in his father’s business, and he was almost certainly aware of Josephine Rhodes, the first African-American to attend Poughkeepsie High School. She graduated four years ahead of Gaius, and her father, Joseph, was also a leader in the local black community.
The high school principal during Bolin’s time there was Samuel W. Buck, Williams Class of 1867. A former lawyer, Buck took an interest in the young man who shared the name Gaius with the famed Roman jurist. Buck encouraged Bolin to apply to Williams, a decision Bolin treasured. “In a life that has its struggles, disappointments, defeats as well as pleasures, happiness and successes,” he wrote in 1909, “there is no part of it upon which I look back with more genuine pleasure, satisfaction and happiness than the four years spent up at dear old Williams with my classmates and the fellows in general there.”
Bolin vividly recalls life at Williams in his letters to the annual alumni reports of the Class of 1889. He depicts a college that, to today’s students and alumni, is at once familiar yet evocative of another time. In one letter from 1914, “Old Charlie Bole” (as his classmates sometimes called him) playfully laments the installation of street lamps on Main Street since their graduation:
“They tell me that they have got a lot of electric lights all over that town now so that at night it is as light as day, and have trolley cars and policemen and all that kind of foolishness, and if that is so all I have got to say is that Williamstown is ruined. Who could ever gather grapes at night such as Carpenter Clark used to have, or innocently carry furniture out of that store room that used to be in East College, or even distribute among themselves a little thing like a barrel of cider from Spalding’s room while he was at prayer meeting, with a lot of old electric lights aburning, and trolley cars flashing along the streets, and a lot of fool policemen sticking their noses into other innocent people’s business. … I am glad that I lived there when folks had a little more personal liberty without so much danger of getting caught at it.”
Bolin’s room at No. 3 South College (now Fayerweather Hall) was a social hub, a gathering place for whist and camaraderie. In the same 1914 letter he expands upon the cider incident, describing how some of the pilfered juice was spilled in the hallway outside his door and left an impression on “Carpenter Clark”—as handyman Robert R. Clark was known to generations of Williams students—who came by when Bolin’s room was “as usual filled with a motley crowd smoking pipes and playing cards, and … went out holding his nose and said ‘that Bolin’s room smells like a bar room.’”
Concludes Bolin: “I have never had any confidence in circumstantial evidence since then.”
Bolin was an athlete, playing on his class’s football team all four years, and he took great pleasure in an 1888 baseball victory over Harvard, which he wrote in another letter, somewhat slyly, “ought to be Williams College history forever.” He delivered a speech about Abraham Lincoln during the college’s commencement program in 1887, and his rhetorical skills won him nomination as the class speaker or “pipe orator,” for which he received a handsome meerschaum pipe with “89” emblazoned on the bowl.
After graduation, Gaius returned home, where he worked with his father for a year and then signed on to read law with lawyer Fred E. Ackerman. On Dec. 15, 1892, he was admitted to the bar of New York in Brooklyn. Seven years later he married Matilda Emery, an Irish woman with roots in Northern Ireland’s Enniskillen, with whom he had four children. She died in 1917 from an unspecified illness.
As a small-city lawyer in general practice, Bolin argued cases of all kinds. These included estate claims, an 1894 dispute about payment for a load of apples and a murder trial that kept him from attending his 20th Williams class reunion. He had the respect of neighbors far and wide, earning a reputation as an honest broker and an excellent lawyer. He was also known as a judicious advocate. A local reporter noted Bolin’s “ready sympathy for those who transgress the law” and registered his view that “the wayward … are more often than not the victims of flaws in their heredity … and justice toward them should be tempered with mercy.”
Notably, at a time when segregation was still widely practiced and accepted, most of Bolin’s clients were white. “I often wonder how the hell he ever did it,” Lionel Bolin says. “My grandfather was the only black lawyer in town. And even the white lawyers were struggling! Here he had almost no support group at all. You know how you find business through your social life? He wasn’t part of that social life. He didn’t belong to any country clubs. He just had to do everything on pure grit and reputation.”
Gaius was known for being a lion in the courtroom. “People used to say when he’d be arguing a case in court you could hear him from across the street,” Lionel says. “He could cuss with the best of them. And they did a lot of that in court in those days.”
Gaius was a Republican—the party of Lincoln—and a supporter of then-New York Gov. Theodore Roosevelt, with whom he corresponded. Roosevelt appointed Bolin to the New York State Board of Managers of the 1901 Pan-American Exposition at Buffalo. Bolin also was a founding member of the local branch of the NAACP. Late in life, he was named the first African-American president of the Dutchess County Bar Association, which the scholar Jacqueline McLeod suggests was in part the result of a speech Bolin’s daughter Jane gave in 1944, on the occasion of “American Brotherhood Week,” that included an indictment of Poughkeepsie’s racial inequities.
Despite Jane’s critique of midcentury Poughkeepsie, the Bolins were to some extent insulated from overt racism. In an oral history interview conducted at Vassar in the 1970s, Gaius’ son, Gaius C. Bolin Jr., said of his hometown, “There was discrimination here, but I never ran into it because practically anyplace I walked into, somebody knew me.”
There were painful incidents, however. Jane Bolin was refused a haircut at a local salon on racial grounds, and the elder Gaius was assaulted by an Eastman College student for taking a seat on a crowded trolley. Gaius had the student arrested and, when he was released on bail, had him jailed again a week later. It was an unusual move, according to a local paper, accomplished “under the legal rule that permits the plaintiff in a tort action for injuries to have the defendant kept within the jail limits or give bail in lieu of such detention.” The episode exemplified both the dignified self-possession that Gaius’ grandson Lionel recalls and a matter-of-fact willingness to use legal force to push back hard against poor treatment.
Lionel Bolin recalls his father and grandfather talking about towns they’d have to avoid on their rounds in the Justice Courts of smaller villages surrounding Poughkeepsie. The Ku Klux Klan was active in the Hudson Valley, though the Bolins’ attitude toward the local organization, at least, seems to have been one of bemusement. In a 1978 interview, Gaius Jr., also a lawyer, who shared offices with his father, describes a Klan gathering behind a local church as “more or less a joke.”
Although he never sought conflict, Bolin was deeply protective of his family and addressed racism wherever he found it. When the president of Vassar quipped about a “darkie” in an assembly at Bolin’s daughter Anna’s school, Bolin sent a strongly worded letter to him and to the school’s principal. He objected to the discriminatory practices of the local YMCA and set straight a Wellesley guidance counselor who discouraged his daughter Jane from pursuing law.
Yet Bolin was a man of his era; when he learned of Jane’s intention to become a lawyer, he objected, suggesting that such a vocation was too “dirty” for a woman. He later voiced a similar protest at the idea of her becoming a judge. In both cases, however, when he saw that she was decided, he threw his moral and financial support behind her. She went on to become the country’s first black female judge. A photograph of Jane being sworn in as a Domestic Relations Court judge by New York City Mayor Fiorello La Guardia in 1939 hung on Bolin’s office wall near a portrait of the Class of 1889.
In a 1939 letter to his class, Bolin wrote: “As for myself, 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, and barring the deep sorrows which come to us all, I have had a pleasant life.” As he seems to have understood it, his life was unremarkable. For those who followed in his footsteps, however, it had profound significance.
“It was always a pillar of strength for me to know that my family had been at Williams and knocked down walls,” Hobby says. “There is a narrative about African-Americans in the U.S. that doesn’t talk about five generations of a college-educated family, but it’s important. It changes the tool kit and the voices at the table.”
As a child, Lionel Bolin recalls spending weekend afternoons at his grandfather’s house on Grand Avenue in Poughkeepsie. They listened to the radio together— operas, Gaius’ favorite, on Saturdays and symphonies on Sundays.
Lionel remembers his grandfather sinking into his chair in a kind of reverie, ash glowing at the tip of a White Owl cigar—thinking, perhaps, of revels at No. 3 South College or other cherished episodes from a life that defied expectations.