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Shackleford, Elizabeth (1895-1989)

  • By Lane Morgan
  • Posted 1/20/2017
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 20281

Elizabeth Shackleford, a lifelong Tacoman, was a lawyer and judge in her hometown for 60 years. She was the second female justice of the peace in Pierce County and for several years the only female lawyer in Tacoma. During her long career, she quietly developed a reputation as a social activist, championing the rights of blacks, Native Americans, and women of all backgrounds. "A woman starting out in law is going to have trouble and start out with clients whose means are small," she told a Tacoma News Tribune columnist in 1969, adding "You see people in need and when you do get prosperous you have had an education by working with people less fortunate. You have made friendships with them and realize their talents and the difficulties they have overcome" (Cardwell). Shackleford's support helped establish several Tacoma social initiatives and service organizations.

A Family of Professional Women

Shackleford was born July 16, 1895, to John Shackleford (1862-1927), a lawyer who came to Tacoma from his native Kentucky in 1890, and Charlotte Shane Shackleford (1863-1944), a teacher originally from Indiana. She was the middle of three daughters, all of whom had professional careers and none of whom married. Charlotte Shackleford (1891-1980) graduated Phi Beta Kappa from the University of Washington in 1914 and was a high school teacher and writer for the WPA Guide to Washington. Martha Shackleford (1898-1982) attended the College (later University) of Puget Sound and became a biology and botany professor in Oklahoma.

Elizabeth Shackleford credited her father with shaping her values, including a belief that "a lawyer had an obligation to the community where he made his living, because lawyers are a monopoly and so many people depend on them" (Cardwell), and her mother, who taught school in a country town before marriage and returned to the classroom in 1916, with showing her that women could take charge in challenging situations. She said in 1974:

"Women have to make up their minds to take on the responsibility. They have just got to get in there and do it. And I don't see this as something where you have to go in and cut a man's head off" (Ferguson).

Shackleford graduated from Stadium High School in 1913, where she was co-valedictorian and a commencement speaker. As president of the struggling Debate Club, she lamented in the 1913 edition of the school's yearbook that low participation forced the group to skip several meets: "Has the sun driven the flowing eloquence, or the rain extinguished the fervid glow of oratory?" (Stadium Annual).

That fall she started at the University of Washington, where her older sister was a senior, and then transferred to the College of Puget Sound (CPS) in 1915. As a lifelong Methodist, she was comfortable with the mandatory five-days-a-week chapel and recalled specific sermons with pleasure more than 60 years later. "I know some of the kids resented chapel," she told former CPS president R. Franklin Thompson (d. 1999) in 1981, "but I think young people have to have something to fight against" ("Oral Interview").

Studying for the Bar Exam

Her memories of college included her history professor (and state senator) Walter Davis (1866-1943) teaching her the skills needed to study for the bar:

"He also had this method of outlining, very, very carefully and in great detail. That was one of the most useful things anybody ever taught me. When I went ahead to study law on my own, I found that was the way to pound it into my head. By the time you got through outlining a book down to the sentences and paragraphs, you know what is in the book alright. I think he was a remarkable man and I got a great deal out of my association with him" ("Oral Interview").

Shackleford wrote her bachelor's thesis on the history of the Puyallup Indian Reservation. Though a product of its time in terms of her perspective on the superiority of Christianity and the European way of life, the paper showed signs of her genuine interest in other cultures and her willingness to learn directly from people she met. She ended it with this gloomy assessment, which she lived long enough to see disproved:

"In spite of the efforts of the government and the churches, the Puyallup Indians seem to be slowly dying out. In part, this has been due to conditions that government could have remedied. At first, sufficient appropriations were not made for doctors and medicine. ... However, even with the best of care, it is doubtful whether the Indians could have increased in number. Diseases not usually dangerous to whites were fatal to them" (Shackleford, 74).

After graduation in 1918, she went to work in her father's law office and prepared for the bar exam. She did not attend law school:

"In those days they had the Bar Examination split up into three years. You covered a certain part of the curriculum and took the examination and then the next part and so on. This was easier on the person taking the examination and I think probably a little more fair than the way they do now. It seems like it has become kind of an endurance test now" ("Oral Interview").

Law Practice and Civic Activism

Shackleford was admitted to the Washington State Bar in 1922, the only woman among the 23 new lawyers that year. She told the Tacoma News Tribune that "I believe in suffrage and all that, but I don't think a woman has much chance of success in the law business unless she is associated with a man who has established a reputation and can command the utmost respect of his clients" ("Tacoma Girl ..."). Following that theory, she stayed with her father's firm until he died in 1927.

As she helped with her father's cases and struggled to build her own clientele, she also moved into civic activism with the League of Women Voters. As with her own approach, the League started out cautiously and become more assertive as time went on. In a 75th anniversary publication of the Tacoma League, she said that the early members started small. The League focused in its early years on the public schools, advocating for kindergarten and supporting teachers in disputes with administration. Shackleford recalled:

"They didn't want to get into arguments because they didn't know what it might do to their husbands' businesses. As younger women came along, they became more aggressive. ...

"At first, the reaction from men was amused. ... We deserved that because we were kind of amateurish. Eventually, we became more businesslike. The smarter men took us seriously, and the papers reported the League's stand on issues" ("Anniversary Booklet").

Both Elizabeth and her sister Charlotte were also early members of the Tacoma branch of the NAACP, and Elizabeth was instrumental in establishing the legal groundwork for a number of black social and service clubs, including the Caballeros social club and the Black Women's Club, both of which remain active in Tacoma.

In 1938, Shackleford ran for Pierce County Clerk as a Republican. She was unsuccessful, but she remained involved in civic life, and in 1952 served on the Tacoma Freeholders Committee that proposed a new city charter, replacing the scandal-ridden strong mayor system with a council-manager form of government. Tacoma attorney Pat Steele, who also served on the committee and wrote about it in a history of the Pierce County Bar Association, credited her with drafting the new charter.

Justice of the Peace

In 1954 she ran for Justice of the Peace, promising to "Think well, then decide calmly" (campaign flyer). She took office on February 1, 1955, replacing Blanche Funk Miller. Her first duty was to preside over the marriage of her friend Kate Bacher, an elevator operator in her law-office building, to Ray Inderbitzen, a dairy cattle foreman. The Inderbitzens sent her a bouquet each year thereafter on their Valentine's Day anniversary.

On the bench Shackleford dealt with cases ranging from securities fraud involving sales of a purportedly super-hard metal, to a man who refused to pay his Tacoma garbage bill on the grounds that he produced no garbage (he lost), to the widely reported Vukovich murder, where the 20-year-old son of an Alaska state senator confessed to bludgeoning his mother to find out whether it is possible to make contact with the dead.

In her successful re-election campaign in 1958, she cited the 2,900 civil and 1,150 criminal cases that had come before the court in the first nine months of that year and said she believed there should be at least one woman justice on the Tacoma bench.

Three years later Shackleford was honored as a Woman of Achievement for 1961 by the Tacoma Business and Professional Women's Club. She was credited for her work on Washington's Law of Joint Tenancy clarifying property ownership and her help for the Tacoma City Association of Colored Women and the Cassia Masonic Lodge.

When the Justice of the Peace position was recast as District Court, she stayed with it, campaigning to expand probation services and to extend the right to a public defender from Superior Court to the district level. "You can never hope to straighten everyone out," she realized, but probation services "undoubtedly would help the youngest offenders. ... We say we run the primary school here. From here, regular offenders graduate to Superior Courts and sometimes, on to the pen. Our hope is that we can keep them at this level" (Tewkesbury).

As a District Court judge she presided over several cases involving Indian fishing rights, trials that began the judicial paper trail that eventually led to the Boldt Decision, U.S. v. Washington, which clarified tribal rights to fisheries in 1974. Shackleford said those were the cases that most interested her during her career, and they helped bring her opinions as a young woman writing a college thesis to a more mature understanding of Indian aspirations and rights. In one case, the ruling hinged on whether the fishers in question were members of the Nisqually Tribe, and therefore allowed by treaty to fish in the Nisqually River. In another, she sentenced Suzanne Satiacum and Clara Satiacum, married respectively to Puyallup chief Bob Satiacum and his brother Chester, after finding them guilty in an hour-plus boat chase on the Puyallup River.

Return to Private Practice

She retired from the courtroom in 1967, after Filis Otto (1924-2006) assured her she would run for the position to try to retain female representation on the court. Shackleford returned to private practice, where for several years she was the only female attorney in Tacoma, and still one of few who welcomed black clients. She told R. Franklin Thompson

"It was a long hard struggle for me to get started in the practice of law. Naturally people who were hard up would drift around to a lawyer who was willing to spend time with them. Many black people came into my office. Well, some of them became the warmest friends I have in the City of Tacoma -- the women in those organizations that I have known for forty years. I came to have a very high respect for them. I came to see what the struggles they had were and how they met their problems. I think that they became fond of me because I was always ready and willing to sit down and hear their story out and not jump to the conclusion that nothing could be done or there wasn't anything the matter, or things of that sort" ("Oral Interview").

By the late 1960s, Shackleford and her sister Charlotte had bought and renovated an old house in the diverse and then-rowdy Hilltop District. She was a dedicated gardener and said that at least to the extent of an improved yard, "I've been an asset to the community" (Cardwell).

Although she remained a regular church-goer and a temperate Methodist, she was largely untroubled by the protests of the time. "Sometimes I think we don't look back," she told the Tacoma News Tribune in 1969, "or we forget and get all worked up over what is a temporary situation. I remember the labor troubles in the 1930s, down in the Tideflats. The National Guard came in. This has never been an awfully peaceful, quiet town" (Cardwell). For herself, she said, "If I had my life to do over again, I would do it a little more boldly" (Tewkesbury).

Retirement and Tributes

In 1981, a year after her sister Charlotte died, Shackleford closed down her law practice for the last time at age 86 and announced plans to move to Oklahoma to live with her surviving sister, Martha. Her neighbors, clients, and other friends quickly organized a tribute that made it clear she was an asset for more than her rose bushes.

"Judge Shackleford is true blue. You call her and she's right there when you want her," civil rights activist Mrs. J. W. Wesley told the crowd, while Dolores Silas, NAACP chapter president, said Shackleford had been on the "battlefield" from early in her career; to these tributes, Shackleford responded "You've broadened my outlook, warmed my heart, and have been good friends to me when I needed friends" (Anderson).

Martha Shackleford died a few months later, and Elizabeth stayed in Western Washington, spending her last years at Wesley Gardens, a Methodist retirement community in Des Moines in south King County. She died on September 3, 1989, at age 94.


"Honors Divided," Tacoma Times, May 21, 1913, p. 7; "Tacoma Girl Admitted to Bar," Tacoma News Tribune, January 28, 1922, p. 1; "Cupid's Helper in First Act," Tacoma News Tribune, February 15, 1955; Don Tewkesbury, "Justice Court Judge Retires at Age 71," Tacoma News Tribune, Jan. 8, 1967, p. A-8; Rod Cardwell, "Tacoma's Never Been Too Quiet," Tacoma News Tribune, November 3, 1969, p. A-8; Howard Ferguson, "Biographical Sketch," Tacoma News Tribune, October 17, 1974; Betty Anderson, "Shackleford Says Goodbye: Beloved Jurist Honored," Tacoma News Tribune, August 30, 1981; R. Franklin Thompson, "Oral Interview with Miss Elizabeth Shackleford, September 8, 1991," copy available at University of Puget Sound website accessed January 10, 2017 (http://soundideas.pugetsound.edu/pugetsoundhistoricaltext/4/); "85th Anniversary Booklet" (update of 75th Anniversary Booklet), League of Women Voters of Tacoma-Pierce County website accessed January 19, 2017 (http://www.lwvwa.org/tacoma/pdfs/anniversary_booklet.pdf); "Garbage Foe Loses," Daily Chronicle, (Centralia), September 1, 1966, p. 2; "Relatives Sentenced," Ibid., December 8, 1965, p. 2; "Man Charged in Stock Deal," Port Angeles Evening News, August 19, 1961, p. 12; "Man Cited for Murder," Herald and News (Klamath Falls, Oregon), October 16, 1960, p. 8; Patrick M. Steele, From the Beginning: A History of the Tacoma/Pierce County Bar Association (Tacoma: The Association, 1990), 97; Stadium Annual, 1913 (Stadium High School yearbook), Northwest Room, Tacoma Public Library, Tacoma, Washington; Elizabeth Shackleford Justice of the Peace, campaign flyer, 1954, Northwest Room, Tacoma Public Library; Elizabeth Shackleford, "A History of the Puyallup Indian Reservation" (bachelor's thesis, College of Puget Sound, 1918), Tacoma Public Library.

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