ENTRY

Fields, James A. (1844–1903)

SUMMARY

James A. Fields, who was born enslaved and became a successful lawyer, served one term in the House of Delegates (1889–1890). A brutal beating prompted Fields to escape his Hanover County bondage, and he settled in the Hampton area during the American Civil War (1861–1865). He enrolled in Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute‘s first class in 1869 and graduated two years later. In 1882 Fields received his law degree from Howard University and began to practice law in Warwick County (later Newport News). Five years later the area’s voters elected him as commonwealth’s attorney, and in 1889 he won his seat in the General Assembly. By 1900 he paid taxes on at least twenty-five properties in Newport News and Elizabeth City County. Fields died of Bright’s disease in 1903. His late-Victorian Italianate residence in Newport News was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2002.

Early Years

James Apostle Fields was born into slavery in August 1844 in Hanover County. He was the son of Washington Fields and Martha Ann Fields, whose maiden name is variously recorded as Berkley and Thornton. His parents lived on separate plantations. He may have learned to read while enslaved. While tending horses for attorneys conducting business at the Hanover courthouse, Fields observed courtroom proceedings that later inspired his interest in the law. During the Civil War, he fled after suffering a particularly brutal beating from his owner and eventually joined the rest of his family, who had escaped in 1863 to the lines of the Union army in the Hampton area.

Fields attended a nearby American Missionary Association school for African Americans and worked at Fort Monroe for the army’s Quartermaster Department in 1864 and as a watchman for the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands in 1865–1866. In 1869 he was among a group of students that constituted the first class of the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute (later Hampton University). He taught in Williamsburg the following year and in 1871 graduated from Hampton.

Political Career

Between 1873 and 1886 Fields lived in Elizabeth City County. He became active in Republican Party politics and on January 17, 1880, won election as doorkeeper of the House of Delegates to fill a vacancy for the 1879–1880 session. In 1882 Fields received a law degree from Howard University, in Washington, D.C., and soon began practicing law in the Hampton area. Two years later he was licensed to practice in adjacent Warwick County. On May 9, 1885, in Hampton, Fields married Carrie E. Washington, who, according to family tradition, had been born Caroline E. Armistead and later took her stepfather’s surname. The couple had four sons.

Fields served as a captain in the Libby Guards, a Hampton militia unit, and as a justice of the peace, either in Elizabeth City County or in Warwick County. Scarce documentation makes it difficult to verify many public offices he may have held. By 1887 Fields had moved to Newport News, in Warwick County. From June 15, 1887, until at least January 14, 1891, he served as commonwealth’s attorney, and in October 1890 he took the oath of notary public.

Fields easily won election in 1889 to the House of Delegates representing the counties of Elizabeth City, James City, Warwick, and York and the city of Williamsburg in the assembly that met from December 4, 1889, to March 6, 1890. Two weeks into the session he attended a gathering in Richmond of more than 100 influential black Virginians who decried instances of fraud in the recent election and called on Congress to remedy the situation. Fields played a prominent role in the proceedings and sat on the Committee on Address. In the House he held the lowest-ranking seats on the Committees on Claims and on Schools and Colleges. Fields introduced bills pertaining to pay and mileage for jurors and appropriate compensation for judges of elections. He also proposed to amend petit and grand larceny laws, to empower Warwick County supervisors to regulate the valuation of property in the county, and to authorize construction of wharves on the Poquoson River. He did not seek reelection in 1891.

Later Years

For about fourteen years Fields instructed students, many of whom later became educators, at makeshift schools at Williamsburg’s First Baptist Church and at Hampton’s Third Baptist Church. He taught Sunday school at the Hampton church for many years, had become school superintendent by 1890, and also served as treasurer of the Hampton Young Men’s Christian Association. He farmed and maintained a law practice, through which he also coached aspiring young African Americans who wished to enter that profession. His niece, Inez Catherine Fields (later Scott), became one of the earliest African American women to practice law in Virginia.

In 1900 the twenty-five lots on which Fields paid taxes in Newport News and Elizabeth City County were valued at $12,242, and estimates of the estate he left at his death ranged from $25,000 to $50,000. Fields died of Bright’s disease at his home on November 23, 1903, and was buried in Pleasant Shade Cemetery, in Hampton. After his death, his late-Victorian Italianate residence in Newport News was used for several years as a hospital, likely the first such facility for African Americans in the city. In 2002 the James A. Fields House was added to the National Register of Historic Places.

MAP
TIMELINE
August 1844
James A. Fields is born into slavery in Hanover County.
1863
The enslaved family of James A. Fields escapes to Union lines in the Hampton area. Fields will join them in the next year.
1864
James A. Fields works at Fort Monroe for the army's Quartermaster Department.
1865—1866
James A. Fields works as a watchman for the Freedmen's Bureau.
1869
James A. Fields joins the first class of the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute (later Hampton University).
1870
James A. Fields teaches in Williamsburg.
1871
James A. Fields graduates from the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute (later Hampton University).
January 17, 1880
James A. Fields wins election as doorkeeper of the House of Delegates.
1882
James A. Fields receives a law degree from Howard University, in Washington, D.C., and soon begins practicing law in the Hampton area.
1884
James A. Fields is licensed to practice law in Warwick County.
May 9, 1885
James A. Fields and Carrie E. Washington marry in Hampton. They will have four sons.
1887
By this year, James A. Fields has moved to Newport News, in Warwick County.
June 15, 1887—at least January 14, 1891
James A. Fields serves as commonwealth's attorney, in Newport News.
1889
James A. Fields easily wins election to the House of Delegates representing Elizabeth City, James City, Warwick, and York counties and the city of Williamsburg.
December 1889
James A. Fields attends a gathering in Richmond of more than 100 influential black Virginians who decry instances of fraud in the recent election and call on Congress to remedy the situation.
1890
By this year, James A. Fields is school superintendent at Hampton's Third Baptist Church.
October 1890
James A. Fields takes the oath of notary public in Newport News.
1891
James A. Fields does not seek reelection to the House of Delegates.
1900
The federal census indicates that James A. Fields pays taxes on twenty-five lots in Newport News and Elizabeth City County valued at $12,242.
November 23, 1903
James A. Fields dies of Bright's disease at his home in Newport News.
2002
The James A. Fields House, in Newport News, is added to the National Register of Historic Places.
FURTHER READING
  • Clermont, Kevin M., ed. The Indomitable George Washington Fields: From Slave to Attorney. United States: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2013.
  • Engs, Robert Francis. Freedom’s First Generation: Black, Hampton, Virginia, 1861–1890. New York: Fordham University Press, 2004.
  • Jackson, Luther Porter. Negro Office-Holders in Virginia, 1865–1895. Norfolk, Virginia: Guide Quality Press, 1945.
  • Smith, J. Clay Jr. Emancipation: The Making of the Black Lawyer, 1844–1944. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1993.
CITE THIS ENTRY
APA Citation:
Gunter, Donald. Fields, James A. (1844–1903). (2021, February 12). In Encyclopedia Virginia. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/fields-james-a-1844-1903.
MLA Citation:
Gunter, Donald. "Fields, James A. (1844–1903)" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (12 Feb. 2021). Web. 02 Mar. 2021
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