When Sheila Abdus-Salaam ’74 became the first African American woman to serve on the New York State’s highest court in 2013, her legal mind and commitment to social justice established her place in history. However, it was her warmth, empathy, and capacity for deep connection that won her an enduring place in the hearts of her friends, Barnard alumnae, and colleagues. Abdus-Salaam’s death in 2017 was both a loss to jurisprudence and a painful blow to the many who loved and admired her.
“Sheila met me at the same moment my mother was dropping me off at college. We remained friends all our lives,” said Marilyn Sanders Mobley ’74, professor emerita of English and African American studies at Case Western Reserve University, of meeting Abdus-Salaam in the fall of 1970. “We claimed one another’s mother as our mother. We [called each other] sisters. Our mothers knew we claimed one another as sisters, and we didn’t always bother to clarify for others that we were just sister-friends.”
A year after Abdus-Salaam’s death, Mobley and a cadre of Barnard alumnae created the Sheila Abdus-Salaam ’74 Memorial Fund. The endowed fund provides financial aid support to students who show a commitment to public service and wish to explore the field of public interest law or work promoting social justice. The group wanted to build an event that would cultivate a community around these scholars — leading them to establish the annual lecture. Its mission is to surface important conversations that underscore an enduring commitment to equity and justice in honor of Abdus-Salaam’s life’s work; speakers have included Janette McCarthy Wallace, the general counsel of the NAACP, and entertainment lawyer Nina Shaw ’76, one of the founding organizers of Time’s Up.
President Laura Rosenbury will host this year’s lecture guest, Eric H. Holder, the attorney general of the United States from 2009 to 2015. Holder, the first African American to hold the position, was Abdus-Salaam’s dear friend and peer from law school.On February 19,
The lecture, entitled “Our Unfinished March: A Conversation With Eric Holder,” echoes the title of the book Holder co-authored in 2023: Our Unfinished March: The Violent Past and Imperiled Future of the Vote – A History, a Crisis, a Plan. The book traces the history of the fight for voting rights and examines the forces threatening those rights. President Rosenbury, a prominent feminist legal theorist, will lead the discussion, which will touch on issues of civic engagement, justice, and Barnard’s commitment to diversity and inclusion.
“We are honored to welcome former Attorney General Holder to campus and to continue the annual lecture in recognition of all that Sheila Abdus-Salaam brought to society,” said President Rosenbury. “She is a treasured part of Barnard’s legacy.”
“When I think of Sheila, I think of the impact she had on us as classmates, on the legal community, and even on the community of Harlem where she lived,” said Mobley, who recalled Abdus-Salaam’s lifelong commitment to Barnard. “We continued to admire her over the years, [as] she had one accomplishment after another. Sheila would go to campus to meet with students and to mentor them. She wanted to help people advance in their professions. She had a sense of calling.”
That calling extended to her Harlem neighborhood, where she devoted time and energy to community-building organizations. In 2021, the City of New York named West 131st Street between Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard and Malcolm X Boulevard Judge Sheila Abdus-Salaam Way in her honor.
“Judge Abdus-Salaam’s dedication to justice and trailblazing career serves as a beacon for attorneys and, in particular, for attorneys of color like myself,” said Gloribelle Perez ’05, who befriended Abdus-Salaam during Barnard’s yearly Alumna of Color Dinner. “[Her] commitment to fairness in the legal system has left an indelible mark. I have no doubt that her groundbreaking achievements paved the way for future generations of diverse legal professionals.”
Watch the event here.