‘I knew I could do it!’: A formerly incarcerated single Black mom passes the NY bar on her first try

Afrika Owes opens up about the "tribe" that helped her turn her life around after being incarcerated as a teen.

Bar exam, Afrika Owes, Black lawyers, Black mothers, Black single mothers, formerly incarcerated, theGrio.com
A Black formerly incarcerated single mother shares her joy at passing the bar exam with the world. (Photo: Adobe Stock)

When the graduates of Fordham University’s School of Law walk across the stage later this month, a formerly incarcerated Black woman — who happened to just pass the bar exam on the first try — will be among them. 

Afrika Owes, a single mom based in New York, has gone viral after sharing the news on TikTok that she passed the New York bar exam early on her first try. 

In the video, which opens with the text, “POV: You’re a formerly incarcerated single mom who passed the bar early on the first try,” Owes filmed her live reaction as she logged in to check her results online. Finding her results after a few tense moments, Owes immediately shouted, “I passed! I passed!”, bursting into tears as a member of her background support team embraced and congratulated her. 

According to the New York Times, in 2011, Owes, 17 at the time, was charged as part of a gang-related conspiracy case. She pleaded guilty to the felonies of conspiracy and weapons possession and was later sentenced under the New York Youthful Offender program, serving six months on Rikers Island with five years of probation after her release. However, she explained to People she “only wound up doing two years of probation.”

During her sentence, Owes studied for her GED and the SAT. After she was released, she finished high school and enrolled in college, completing the first two years during her probation. 

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“I knew I could do it,” she said, also holding up pictures of her mother, grandmother, and her young son named Kairos and thanking them along with God as the exciting and emotional video wrapped.

Owes excitement is warranted, considering the difficulty of passing a state’s bar exam. Not only is it rare to pass the bar on the first try, a feat only an average of 59% of applicants do in New York, but it’s even less common for Black test takers to pass on the first try. Roughly only 57% of Black participants in the exam passed on the first try, compared to 83% of white participants

As she shared the video on Instagram, Owes made note of the significance of her accomplishment in the caption. 

“I’m happy to join the ranks of the 2% [of] Black women attorneys in the U.S. and the less than 1% of formerly incarcerated black attorneys in the U.S.,” she wrote. 

Speaking to People magazine, the formerly incarcerated single mother credited her tribe and community with uplifting her throughout her journey from inmate to esquire. 

“There [were] so many people that believed in me and I said, ‘You know what, I would hate for this to be in vain,’” she told the publication. 

Owes explained to People that she had no doubts in her mind and would “figure out how I was going to get right back on track.”