Cook was born into slavery in King William County. The names of his parents and the name of the family who owned him are not known, nor is it clear when or under what circumstances he acquired or took his surname. He was described several times as being of mixed-race ancestry. On January 23, 1847, Fields, as he then identified himself, began writing a narrative of his life, one of the longest manuscripts known to have been composed by an enslaved Virginian. The first thirty-two pages of the memoir survive and in 1902 were deposited in the Library of Congress. He recorded that he spent his youth in the Virginia countryside, where his relationship with his master’s family was close and complex. His dearest boyhood companion, the son of his master, delivered the most cutting blow of his young life when he abruptly began treating Fields as a slave. Years later the two reconciled and the white boy gave him two priceless gifts, an introduction to Christianity and literacy. Fields’s criticism of slavery in his memoir was subtle, unlike his condemnation of Nat Turner for provoking a wave of terror against unoffending slaves in his region.
After a failed romance, Fields requested and received permission about 1834 to live and work in Richmond, where he presumably participated in the illegal but common system of self-hiring. He found work, arranged his own room and board, and kept any money he earned in excess of the fees he paid to his owner. Six feet tall, literate, personable, and industrious, Cook prospered in Richmond. Within a few years of arriving in the city he married Mary, an enslaved domestic servant; was baptized and joined the First Baptist Church; and became the father of at least two sons and one daughter. It is possible that Cook wrote his life story about the time he gained his freedom, which he had secured by 1850. In that year he was working as a leech doctor, and by 1860 he had managed to free his wife and to purchase and free at least two of his children. In 1852 he bought the first of several city lots and houses in Richmond. The house and lot where he lived on North Ninth Street in 1865 were then valued at $1,700. His brother Jim Cook was a well-known Richmond cook and caterer in the years immediately after the Civil War. Inasmuch as Fields Cook was listed in the 1860 census as a waiter and identified five years later as manager of the bar and restaurant in the Ballard House Hotel, it is likely that they were engaged in business together.
Church and Politics
After the Civil War, Cook became a Baptist minister and for several months was pastor at a church in the Chesterfield County coalfields under the auspices of the American Baptist Home Mission Society. Through his position he engaged as one of the most important African American leaders in Richmond. Late in May 1865 federal military authorities imposed pass and curfew restrictions on freedpeople and expelled hundreds from Richmond. At the same time, they reinstated the wartime municipal police force, which, together with provost guards, handled African Americans roughly. Cook and several other church leaders collected evidence of military and civilian misbehavior and called a mass meeting in June. That gathering approved a memorial detailing their grievances, informing the larger public that they alone had been steadfast in their loyalty to the Union, and arguing that the policies of the city’s ruling authority harkened back to a discredited past rather than heralding a new era of liberty. Cook chaired the delegation chosen at that mass meeting to present their case to the governor and on June 16, 1865, to the president of the United States.
Cook represented the city in the first state convention of African Americans, which met in Alexandria in August 1865. The convention named him a vice president and asked him to write its address to the public. Cook argued powerfully that African Americans deserved full and legal equality and must have the vote for their own protection. He also wrote that Virginia’s prosperity depended on harmony between the races and required a productive working relationship based on the equality of rights, duties, and protections. Cook’s thoroughly radical vision was wildly at variance with the pledge of protection based on obedience and subservience that the state’s white leaders offered. It was a vision that only the Radical wing of the Republican Party then embraced, but it also squared with Cook’s own experience as a self-made, self-emancipated man who knew that he was anyone’s equal in God’s sight. As he had prospered after becoming free, so too should large numbers of his race, provided they were given opportunity, choice, and protection.
In January 1869 Cook attended the National Convention of the Colored Men of America in Washington, D.C., and was elected to the national executive committee. Late that same year he took part in the convention of the Colored National Labor Union. Cook saw no contradiction between religious leadership and political activism. Indeed, he believed that sound religious teachings, good schooling, and principled politics were all necessary for the elevation of his race and the transformation of society.
From 1867 to 1869 Cook worked tirelessly for the Republican Party. An effective organizer frequently sent into the countryside to rally rural freedmen, he engaged in important battles over strategy that put him at odds with many influential Republicans. His dream of full political freedom for blacks made him seem a natural ally of the Radical Republicans, but his inclusive view of the party often brought him into conflict with the Radical leaders. Cook favored an alliance with former Whig Unionists if they were willing to join the great mass of freedmen in the Republican Party and work to modernize the state. He argued that the party should disavow land confiscation and even make room in the leadership for Whigs who had supported the Confederacy. During the summer of 1867, party rank and file instead heeded the strident voice of James Wesley Hunnicutt, the radical editor of the Richmond New Nation. After the election for the constitutional convention in October of that year demonstrated that most white Virginians opposed the Republican Party, Cook could not resist criticizing Hunnicutt and his followers for alienating potential influential allies. Although finding fault with some Republican leaders and policies, Cook continued to serve on the party’s ward and executive committees, and he was secretary of the congressional district convention in May 1868. He supported the regular state Republican ticket in the watershed election of 1869, but in an unsuccessful campaign as an independent candidate for a seat in Congress that year he received less than 1 percent of the vote.
In 1870 Cook and his wife moved to Alexandria, where for a time he was an agent for the local Freedman’s Savings and Trust Company bank. He lived in that city for the rest of his life and in 1872 sold his Richmond house. Cook was a pastor of the Third Baptist Church until early in 1883, when he left following several disputes within the congregation. He later became pastor of the city’s Ebenezer Baptist Church, in which post he served until his death. As prominent in Alexandria as he had been in Richmond, Cook also remained active politically. During the 1880s he supported the Readjusters and criticized African American voters who rejected that party’s offer of a biracial coalition against the Democrats, who were regaining domination of the state government.
Cook did not live to see his native state take the final steps in stripping African American men of the franchise that he had fought for and claimed as a right and necessity for three decades. Cook died at his Alexandria home on January 21, 1897, and was buried in the city’s Bethel Cemetery.
- Untitled Slave Narrative (1847)