Remembering Sheila Abdus-Salaam, A Pioneering New York Judge


April 13, 2017

Photo credit: Hans Pennink/Associated Press

Today, we remember and honor the incredible life and legacy of Sheila Abdus-Salaam, a pioneering judge who, according to the authorities, was found dead in the Hudson River on Wednesday afternoon. 

“Judge Sheila Abdus-Salaam was a trailblazing jurist whose life in public service was in pursuit of a more fair and more just New York for all,” said New York Governor Andrew Cuomo in a statement. “As the first African American woman to be appointed to the State’s Court of Appeals, she was a pioneer. Through her writings, her wisdom, and her unshakable moral compass, she was a force for good whose legacy will be felt for years to come…” 


In her 65 years of life, Abdus-Salaam not only became the first African American woman to be appointed to New York’s Court of Appeals, she also became the first Muslim woman judge in the United States. Before her historic appointment to New York’s highest court in 2013, Abdus-Salaam served as a State Supreme Court justice in Manhattan and a court justice on the First Appellate Division of the State Supreme Court.

As a teenager, she had the privilege of meeting trailblazing civil rights attorney Frankie Muse Freeman. It was at the moment that Abdus-Salaam was inspired to pursue a career in law. She went on to attend Barnard College and Columbia Law School, later becoming known as one of the nation’s most respected legal minds. The judge expressed the significance of her history and her accomplishments in the legal field in a 2014 video for Impact of Knowledge, where she said:  

“I discovered that I am the great-granddaughter of slaves. That’s important because this great-granddaughter of slaves is the first African-American woman on the highest court of the state of New York…It tells you and me what it is to know who we are and what we can do.”


Judge Abdus-Salaam, thank you for blazing a trail and leaving behind a legacy that will continue to inspire generations of African Americans in law. 

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