Sheila Abdus-Salaam, the first African American woman to serve as a judge on New York’s highest court, was found dead in the Hudson River on Wednesday afternoon, hours after she had been reported missing from her Harlem home. Abdus-Salaam was thought to be struggling with depression, and authorities believe she took her own life, police sources told the Times on Thursday. Those close to her disagree.
“I could not imagine her doing anything to herself to harm herself,” a neighbor told the Daily News. “She’s not that type of person. . . . I’d like to know what happened.”
The reasons behind Abdus-Salaam’s disappearance and death have plagued her friends and peers. She was a pioneer and a leading voice in the legal community, and issued landmark opinions on corporate issues, personal injury suits, and criminal cases. Her devotion to fairness and dignity, apparent in her public service and consideration for the everyday issues facing the city, was celebrated. Governor Andrew Cuomo, who appointed her to the New York Court of Appeals in 2013, praised her “unshakable moral compass.”
Abdus-Salaam began her legal career as a staff attorney at East Brooklyn Legal Services in 1977. In the ’80s, she worked as an assistant attorney general in the New York State Department of Law and served as general counsel for the New York City Office of Labor Services. She began her judicial career after being elected to the Civil Court of the City of New York in 1991. She served as a Manhattan Supreme Court judge for fifteen years before being appointed to the state’s appellate court by then-governor David Patterson in 2009.
Born Sheila Turner, she took her first husband’s surname, Abdus-Salaam, and used it throughout her career. She later divorced him and married James Hatcher, the son of Andrew Hatcher, a press officer for John F. Kennedy. That marriage also ended in divorce, and in 2016, she wed Gregory A. Jacobs, a Christian minister.
Despite many publications, government agencies, and public figures referring to her as the nation’s first Muslim woman to serve as a judge, Abdus-Salaam never made reference to her religious faith. It’s unclear if she considered claims that she was Muslim to be erroneous, as she never publicly corrected them. (The discrepancy appears to have first been brought up by Equality for Her editorial director Najma Sharif, who tweeted her findings Wednesday.)
Born in Washington, D.C., to a working-class family with seven children, Abdus-Salaam attended public schools in the nation’s capital and later traveled to New York. She became a longtime resident of Harlem and received a bachelor’s degree from Barnard College and was classmates with future U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder at Columbia Law school. As a child, she researched her heritage and discovered that her great-grandfather was a slave.
“My grandfather, who died when I was in high school, grew up on a farm in Arrington, Virginia. And in researching that history, I discovered that I am the great-granddaughter of slaves,” Abdus-Salaam said in a 2014 interview with the Impact of Knowledge.
“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,” she tells her interviewer. “I’m the first in the 166-year history of that court. So all the way from Arrington, Virginia, where my family was the property of someone else, to my sitting on the highest court in the state of New York, is amazing and huge. And it tells you and me what it is to know who we are and what we can do.”