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 havewhile 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 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.
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, 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.
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 Hamptonfor 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.