The country’s first-ever female Muslim judge was found dead in New York City’s Hudson River on Wednesday, police said.
Sheila Abdus-Salaam’s body was spotted floating in the water after her husband reported her missing the day before. The 65-year-old judge was fully clothed, with no obvious signs of trauma suggesting foul play, the New York Post reported. Abdus-Salaam was a classmate of former Attorney General Eric Holder at Columbia Law School and has been hailed as a pioneer after her rise from a working-class family in Washington DC. The divorcee had recently remarried an Episcopal reverend, according to the New York Daily News. Witnesses noticed Abdus-Salaam’s body floating in the water near 132nd Street and Hudson Parkway in Manhattan at around 1.45pm and called 911, police said. The 65-year-old, who had been reported missing from her Harlem home the day before, was removed from the river and pronounced dead at the pier before her husband identified her body. The medical examiner has not determined a cause of death and an investigation is ongoing. Abdus-Salaam was also noted for being the first African-American woman to serve on New York’s Court of Appeals when she was appointed by Governor Andrew Cuomo in 2013.
Cuomo issued a statement on Wednesday, memorializing her as a ‘trailblazing jurist whose life in public service was in pursuit of a more fair and more just New York for all’.
He added: ‘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. ‘I was proud to appoint her to the state’s highest court and am deeply saddened by her passing. ‘On behalf of all New Yorkers, I extend my deepest sympathies to her family, loved ones and colleagues during this trying and difficult time.’ New York City Mayor Bill deBlasio also paid tribute, writing: ‘Deeply saddened by the tragic passing of Sheila Abdus-Salaam. She was a humble pioneer. My thoughts are with her family.’ The judge was divorced and remarried Reverend Gregory Jacobs of the Episcopal Archdiocese of Newark, in June, the Daily News reported. The couple were said to be very happy, and chose to live in separate homes, a neighbor said.
Abdus-Salaam, who was born Sheila Turner in 1952, was one of seven children.
She grew up in Washington DC with working class parents and was inspired to pursue law after the civil rights attorney Frankie Muse Freeman visited her high school.
The judge recounted the life-changing talk and said: ‘She was riveting…she was doing what I wanted to do: using the law to help people.’
Abdus-Salaam, who later referred to a career in law as ‘God’s work’, graduated from Barnard College in 1974 and received her law degree from Columbia three years later.
She was classmates with former US Attorney Eric Holder, who said during her swearing in ceremony in 2013: ‘Sheila could boogie, but there was a seriousness about her, a strong sense of purpose at a relatively young age.
‘She never forgot where she came from,’ he added.
Abdus-Salaam, who traced her family’s history and learned her great-grandfather was a slave in Virginia, marveled at the trajectory of her life in 2014.
She said: ‘All the way from Arrington, Virginia, where my family was the property of someone else, to my sitting on the highest court of the State of New York is amazing and huge.
‘It tells you and me what it is to know who we are and what we can do.’
Abdus-Salaam worked as an attorney before she began her career as a judge in the Civil Court of the City of New York in 1992.
She joined the Supreme Court of New York County in 1993 before she was appointed to the highest court 20 years later, where she served until her death.