Judith Kelleher Schafer (1942-2014)

SchaferLegal history and the study of the history of slavery have suffered a significant loss with the death on 16 December of Judith Kelleher Schafer at, by modern standards, a relatively early age. A graduate of Sophie Newcomb College and Tulane University, Professor Schafer was a prolific, thorough, and imaginative scholar, with a keen eye for the telling detail and a fine way with words.

Her first book was Slavery, the Civil Law, and the Supreme Court of Louisiana (LSU 1994). A major achievement, this was based on detailed archival research through the records of the court. It was widely and well reviewed, though some reviewers noted a tension between  a theme of “Americanisation” of the law and one of “uniqueness” of the law of Louisiana – a theme that tends to run through Louisiana legal history more generally. Her next monograph was Becoming Free, Remaining Free: Manumission and Enslavement in new Orleans, 1846-1862 (LSU, 2003). Again based on detailed archival research, this time in the newspapers and court records of New Orleans, the author stressed that this was not a social history of slaves, freedmen and freedwomen, and slave owners, but a study of how these groups used the legal system. The era was that of intensification of slavery in parts of the U.S.A. in the lead up to the Civil War, as the white population started to become more anxious about the survival slavery and its survival; correspondingly it chronicles the attempts of free black to maintain their status. It is a complex topic. Finally, like many who have carried out detailed archival research, Professor Schafer came across other fascinating material. This resulted in a third monograph: Brothels Depravity, and Abandoned Women: Illegal Sex in Antebellum New Orleans (LSU, 2009). This explored the brutal lives of women who prostituted themselves in New Orleans, their violence, the violence against them, and how it all fitted in to property ownership and the needs for landlords to make money from tenancies. It is a fascinating book, telling a complex story, filled with illuminating and vivid stories.

I did not know Professor Schafer well; but I met her a number of times socially, and remember her as an elegant, friendly and amusing woman, whose kind politeness was genuine and not simply the product of good manners. I remember her talking about her determination to go home after Katrina, even to a house in a poor state. Anyone who acknowledges in her books the support derived from drinking companions surely deserves a vote! She will be missed by her family and friends as well as by historians of slavery and of Louisiana.

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