How daughter of Ghanaian immigrants Nancy Abudu worked her way up to make history as judge in U.S.

Nancy Abudu. Photo: Tulane Law School

Nancy Abudu was usually the only Black student in classes in public elementary schools. The daughter of Ghanaian immigrants, she once traveled with her sister and mother from the U.S. to visit her family members in Ghana. When it was time to go back to the U.S., officials did not allow her mother to board the plane on the return trip, saying that she did not have the right immigration documents.

For almost 20 years, Abudu had to live without her mother; her father took care of her and her sister alone in Alexandria, Virginia, in their mom’s absence. Usually bored after doing her homework when back from school, Abudu would put on the TV set in their home and the character of defense attorney Andy Griffith in the 1980s legal drama “Matlock” would inspire her to pursue law.

She would become passionate about voting rights and civic engagement thanks to her father’s anti-apartheid activism in South Africa. Abudu’s father worked as a political scientist in his home country Ghana before moving to the U.S., where, during apartheid in South Africa, he wrote, edited and published a magazine that demanded an end to the tyranny in the Southern African country.

He didn’t have much but was determined to see his children succeed, and possibly follow in his footsteps in the Pan-Africanist movement. Thus, he worked several jobs and saved enough to get Abudu into Mercersburg Academy, an elite boarding school in Pennsylvania. Abudu worked very hard academically and got accepted into Columbia University, and that was where she really made up her mind to pursue a law career after getting mentored by faculty and alumni who were attorneys, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC).

The Ghanaian American went on to graduate from Tulane Law School before working for the New York law firm Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom for some time while doing public interest work such as representing domestic violence survivors for the Legal Aid Society of New York. Abudu then became a staff attorney for the 11th Circuit, and it is at that particular court that she is now making history. The civil rights attorney was on Thursday confirmed by the U.S. Senate as a judge on the U.S. 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, making her the first Black woman to sit on the Atlanta-based court which hears federal cases from Alabama, Georgia and Florida.

“Abudu’s confirmation elevates to the bench a tireless advocate of protecting the fundamental right to vote and of equal treatment of all people under the law. It takes a daughter of immigrants whose childhood was seared by experiences of racism and economic struggle into the halls of judicial power still mostly closed to people of color,” said a statement by the SPLC, where she worked as deputy legal director and interim director for strategic litigation. As the director for strategic litigation, she took on managerial responsibilities, including overseeing all of the organization’s legal programmatic work such as voting rights, immigrants’ rights, criminal justice reform, children’s rights, LGBTQ rights, and special litigation related to hate groups, she said.

It is important to note that the 48-year-old has also worked for the ACLU, including the Florida affiliate, as its legal director, for about 14 years. She makes history now as not only the first Black woman to serve on the Eleventh Circuit but also as the first Ghanaian American to serve on the U.S. Court of Appeals, said a statement by the Ghana Diaspora Public Affairs Collective, an advocacy organization founded by Ghanaian Americans focused on empowering Ghanaians in the diaspora.

The group, which also looks at how to advance U.S.-Ghana relations, said the Senate’s decision to confirm Abudu is a significant milestone in advancing the cause of civil rights, ensuring equal representation, and promoting social justice in the U.S. 

Abudu couldn’t agree more. “It feels like I am being placed in the right place at the right time in our nation’s history and I welcome the charge,” the civil rights attorney was quoted by the SPLC.

At the moment, more than 42.4 million immigrants live in the United States to pursue opportunities and dreams. Many of these immigrants believe in the American Dream and are optimistic about achieving it despite the political climate and threats they face almost every day. Abudu is already living that dream.

Last Edited by:Editor Updated: June 11, 2023


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