Professor and mentor Julie Saville (1947-2023) remembered for her influence on the study of slavery, emancipation, and plantation societies

January 19, 2024

Julie Saville
University of Chicago Photographic Archive, [apf1-12930], Hanna Holborn Gray Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library.
Assoc. Prof. Emerita Julie Saville in 1995

By Sarah Steimer

Julie Saville made an enormous impact on the field of history — and perhaps an even greater impression on her colleagues, students, and mentees as an exemplar of storytelling, conceptual approaches, and personal guidance.

Saville, UChicago Associate Professor Emerita of History and leading scholar of slavery, emancipation, and plantation societies in the U.S. and Caribbean, passed away on December 16, 2023. She was 76.

Saville spent her early childhood in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, during the Jim Crow years before her family was forced by violence to move out of the state to Memphis, Tennessee. She completed her undergraduate work at Brandeis University in the 1960s, where she chose to devote her study to history. She earned her PhD at Yale University in 1986 and held appointments at the University of Maryland and the University of California, San Diego. She joined the University of Chicago in 1994 and was among the founding generation of scholars of the University’s Center for the Study of Race, Politics, and Culture.

Julie Saville
Prof. Emerita Julie Saville

Thomas C. Holt, emeritus professor in History and her close colleague, wrote of Saville’s intellectual and institutional legacy upon her passing, noting two monumental editorial projects that he says arguably recast the empirical basis and possibly the conceptual approaches to studies of the African American experience: The Frederick Douglass Papers initiated by John Blassingame at Yale University (on which Saville worked as an assistant editor) and two volumes of the Freedmen and Southern Society Project at the University of Maryland with its founding director, Ira Berlin.

Her most notable work, though, may be The Work of Reconstruction: From Slave to Wage Laborer in South Carolina, 1860-l870, published in 1994, along with other important papers tracing the experiences and trajectories of emancipation both locally and at scale. According to Holt, the book shows how social, economic, and political life must all be part of the same narrative, if any one of these is to be fully understood. “After reading Saville’s Work of Reconstruction, no one could credibly write about labor processes and political processes in quite the same way again — at least not and still be taken seriously,” Holt argues.

Sabine Cadeau, a former student and Associate Professor of Latin American and Caribbean History at McGill University, echoes the importance of the book and its continued impact. “The Work of Reconstruction helped to trouble any idea about the effective equivalency of wage labor and other paradigms of labor compensation on the one hand, and people's own ideas and hopes for freedom on the other,” Cadeau says. “Her commitment to the field of slavery and emancipation is especially visible with the works that she supervised as a professor and mentor.”

Holt says that her “exceptional historical imagination,” which was grounded in her understanding of the complexities of life, was visible in both her writing and her work with students, which he says enriched

UChicago: “All of us emerged better historians, with a better understand of the complexities of the human behavior from having known her.”

Both students and colleagues speak of the evolution of their own relationships with her, many growing close to her and eventually counting her as a friend. Darryl M. Heller, Assistant Professor at Indiana University South Bend and director of the Civil Rights Heritage Center, initially met Saville when he was an undergraduate at the College of Charleston in 1980. Twenty years later, he reconnected with Saville as a PhD student at UChicago. Saville served as chair or advisor throughout Heller’s graduate career, from seminar paper preparation through qualifying exams, dissertation proposal, and his final defense. He calls her a brilliant, rigorous, demanding, and supportive mentor.

“There were times when I would send her drafts of papers or dissertation chapters that I was grappling with making coherent,” Heller says. “She was amazing at getting the gist of what I was trying to say and reinterpreting it in a way that could take it to the next level. Quite honestly, sometimes Julie would share her thoughts and I would leave the meeting somewhat confused and unsure of exactly what she was suggesting. However, a day or two later, after sitting with it, I would realize what she shared was not only perceptive, but that she had identified what I was trying to say and had given me a new insight in understanding my work.”

Heller had a son while attending UChicago, who came to think of Saville as an aunt. Heller and his son would visit Saville together after he graduated. “One thing about Julie that I came to love is that she did not tolerate fools. You had to come correct, or at least seriously, when you approached her. She also had a beautiful laugh and could light a room with her smile. I had immense respect for her as a thinker, person, and Black woman. She was very private, but I feel extremely fortunate that she let me in a little.”

Cadeau referenced her deep care and commitment to the historian’s profession, to mentorship, to teaching history, and to teaching research and writing. Cadeau calls her first course with Saville — the Haitian Revolution and Human Rights — a transformative moment.

“Julie told me that I was going to write a history that was important to the world,” Cadeau says. “Even before I really believed it, Julie believed that I could write a successful book on Haiti.” (She did: More Than a Massacre: Racial Violence and Citizenship in the Haitian-Dominican Borderlands was published in 2022 and received the Latin American Studies Association's Bryce Wood Award the following year.)

Saville’s focus had shifted from studies of the U.S. South to examine comparable developments in the post-emancipation French Caribbean. Although illness affected her planned research timetable, she passed along that mission to graduate students she mentored.

“Julie was very interested in the growth of historical knowledge, and she kept up with great interest,” Cadeau says. “Two months ago I texted her about slavery in Quebec, and within seconds she texted me several books and began a major conversation on their arguments, approaches and contributions.”

Saville is survived by her sister, Nan Fifer, and a nephew, Alphonso Saville. A Memorial Service for Dr. Julie Saville will be held on Wednesday, Jan 17, 2023 at 11:00 am at the Chapel of Elmwood Cemetery, 824 S Dudley Street, Memphis, TN 38104. Light Refreshments will be served following the service.

“Julie was very giving,” Cadeau says. “Her knowledge and interest in the history of slavery and its afterlives is unmatched. She did everything with love, passion and so much care. She followed and supported every step of my scholarly career. In 2022, I organized my first conference. Julie signed in online and attended the entire conference from the beginning until the end.”