Julie Saville, historian who made enormous impact on the study of slavery, 1947-2023

UChicago scholar remembered as a brilliant, rigorous and supportive mentor

Julie Saville, a leading scholar of slavery, emancipation, and plantation societies in the U.S. and the Caribbean, died Dec. 16. She was 76.

Saville, associate professor emerita in the Department of History and the College, made an enormous impact on the field of history—and perhaps made an even greater impression on her colleagues, students, and mentees as an exemplar of storytelling, conceptual approaches and personal guidance.

Saville spent her early childhood in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, during the Jim Crow years before her family was forced by violence to move to Memphis, Tennessee. She went on to do her undergraduate work at Brandeis University in the 1960s, where she chose to devote her study to history. She later joined the UChicago faculty in 1994, joining the founding generation of scholars of the Center for the Study of Race, Politics and Culture.

Thomas C. Holt, emeritus professor in the Department of 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, “The Work of Reconstruction: From Slave to Wage Laborer in South Carolina, 1860-l870” (1994), traces 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.

“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 said.

Sabine Cadeau, a former student of Saville’s, echoed 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,” said Cadeau, an associate professor of Latin American and Caribbean History at McGill University. “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 said enriched UChicago.

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

A giving and committed mentor

Both students and colleagues spoke of the evolution of their own relationships with her, with many 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 Ph.D. 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 said. “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.”

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 said. “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" (2022) 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 said. “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.”

“Julie was very giving. Her knowledge and interest in the history of slavery and its afterlives is unmatched. She did everything with love, passion and so much care.”

Saville received her Ph.D. at Yale University in 1986 and held appointments at the University of Maryland and the University of California, San Diego.

Saville is survived by her sister, Nan Fifer, and a nephew, Alphonso Saville.

—Adapted from UChicago's Division of Social Sciences.