The Life of George Washington Fields
Here follows the fortuitously unearthed story of a significant historical figure: George Washington Fields (1854–1932). Fields was known to have entered with the first law class of Cornell University and earned his LL.B. degree in 1890. But his back story before college was unknown, and hence the significance of his life after graduation was unappreciated.
Serendipity has now revealed, despite the university’s records being previously silent on this, that Fields not only was the new law school’s first African-American graduate, but also was in the first graduating group of African Americans from Cornell University as a whole. Even more distinctively, he was the only ex-slave ever to graduate from that august university.
Fields’s significance is not so locally confined, however. Born into slavery in Hanover County, Virginia, he started at the bottom. But 150 years ago, at the height of the Civil War, he, along with his remarkable family, made a historic escape to Hampton, Virginia. There, he worked to support the family, before pursuing an education at the storied Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute. Later moving north, he worked for nearly a decade, including a stint as butler for none other than New York Governor Alonzo Cornell, before completing his legal studies. He then went home to Hampton, where—though blinded in 1896—he continued to overcome, eventually becoming a leading attorney of the region.
The serendipity involved my finding in the archives of a Hampton museum George’s hitherto unpublished autobiography, “Come On, Children”: The Autobiography of George Washington Fields, Born a Slave in Hanover County, Virginia. This incredible document now appears in full form as part of The Indomitable George Washington Fields: From Slave to Attorney.
Fields recounts his story of escape and triumph with a special blend of humor and wisdom, laying out in no uncertain terms the set of values that guided him through his fascinating times. Relating his march from slavery to a successful career as a blind lawyer, the autobiography convinces any reader that this was a great (and greatly likeable) man—and that his mother truly was a great woman. As a friend of mine reacted: “It would be so wonderful to understand his mother’s secret force—if only ‘Come on, Children’ would even get mine off the couch, much less out of slavery!”
Bottom line, Fields’s autobiography constitutes a major contribution to the impassioned literature of North American slave narratives. Like Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave (1845) and Booker T. Washington’s Up from Slavery (1901), Fields delivers, along with considerable literary value, a feel for the realities of slavery that third-party accounts could never achieve.
The life story comprises five acts: the wrenching antebellum life of a slave family, the dramatic escape during wartime, the rebuilding of family life during the South’s Reconstruction, the necessary move up to the North for more work and schooling, and finally the return to Hampton for a largely happy and very productive life.
Antebellum Life: 1854
George Washington Fields was born into the cruelties of slavery in Virginia on April 25, 1854. He was one of eleven children of Martha Ann Berkley and Washington Fields, a man who was a slave on a different plantation. Of the children, one died in infancy, three were sold off, and one was a runaway.
George and the others grew up in Hanover Courthouse, located in northeastern Virginia, on a typical medium-sized plantation. There George received his initiation into farm labor. The crops were tobacco, cotton, wheat, and corn. Livestock included cattle, pigs, sheep, and turkeys. The autobiography gives an emotional sense of plantation life in the South. His picture is not all dark, given that George was one to "keep on the sunny side of life," as the old-time song goes. But the reality was dark, as a sample will show:
"In the spring about the latter part of May there appeared in our County Hanover what is called a bull bat. This bird flies very high in the air, and it was considered great for a farmer to bring one to the ground. My master succeeded in killing it and gave it to my mother, she being the cook on the plantation, to broil for my Mistress Catherine Winston, who when the bird was brought to the table claimed that the bird was cooked too hard so she could not eat it, and told master about it when he came to dinner from the field where he had been looking after the hands. After dinner he came down to the log cabin in which mother cooked and brought with him the bird. Asked her what it was. She answered, "It is the bird I cooked, master."
"Why did you burn it?" And before she could give any explanation, he demanded her to take off her waist, which was a kind of loose woolen garment woven and made on the farm and furnished to all of the women slaves. She of course could do nothing else than obey. He then took her to a large post to which he tied her and whipped her on her bare back until she fainted and would have fallen to the ground had she not been held up by the cord which bound her. Seeing her condition, he loosed the rope; and she in a half-dazed manner staggered back into the cabin. Little George and all of the other slaves who were not off in the fields witnessed this act of extreme brutality, but were powerless to prevent it. I of course was too young and small to do anything other than to ease my resentment in tears and cries."
If one had to generalize the boundless research on slavery, the best statement would be that the 1960s saw a shift from the old view of slavery as a mild and even somewhat benevolent system, to the now-established revisionist view of a brutal institution that featured calculatedly savage punishment and sometimes inadequate food, clothing, and shelter. George's autobiography supports the revisionist view.
Revisionism involved a shift in focus toward study of the slaves themselves. By envisaging them as nondocile actors in the system, the new scholarship gave a much more balanced view of slave life and slave resistance. It explored how the South's "peculiar institution" worked to create a distinctive culture among the antebellum slaves. The autobiography fits in nicely, going well beyond descriptions of slaves' work to illuminate both their family and their religious life.
The owners had every interest, or at least every property interest, in facilitating procreation. Thus, their masters supported the informal marriage of Martha Ann to a slave on another plantation and their conjugal visits. Although sale of children and emasculation of males obviously had destructive effects on black family life, the incredibly close relation of Martha Ann and her younger children is the dominant motif of the autobiography. George so movingly describes his anguish upon being separated even temporarily from his mother in order for him to work in the fields.
The owners often required slaves to attend sanctioned Christian services, using the Bible to justify slavery and to preach obedience. Many slaves converted to Christianity, creating a new form of Protestantism that combined Christianity with elements of African and Caribbean religious rituals and belief. What emerged was a gospel of freedom. The autobiography frequently paints Martha Ann as a deeply religious person with an unwavering faith in God's plan to free her and all her family. "Morning after morning ofttimes the children were wakened from their slumber by the cries of our mother praying to God that He might deliver all of her children from slavery, and that she would see them all again once more gathered about herself." George went on to lifelong involvement in his Baptist church.
War and Escape: 1861-1865
Hanover County was a hotspot of military activity throughout the Civil War. On one side was Richmond, the capital that the South simply had to retain. On another side, on a spit of land opposite Hampton, lay Fort Monroe, which always remained in Northern hands.
In July 1863, during a skirmish, George's mother escaped along with him and five of his siblings—barely. They followed the Union soldiers, only to discover that to protect their retreat, the soldiers had burned the sole bridge. Excitement, anxiety, and all manner of difficulties ensued:
"All eyes were upon mother, who seemed for a while somewhat bewildered. She had a brother who was a slave to a man named Wickham, who owned a farm four miles away and several bloodhounds. He was head man on the farm and had charge of these, and how to get to her brother without arousing the hounds was the question. She had visited him often during the day by traveling the main county road, but she dared not take this way for fear that she might encounter the Rebel pickets. Suddenly being, so it seemed, prompted by a certain premonition, she picked up the iron pot, placed it on her head and said, "Come on, children," and leaving the road entered the thickets and led the way, parting the bushes and the high weeds as she traveled alongside the open fields.All that night we wended our way through thorns and briars, with our feet and hands torn and bleeding. Occasionally we could hear what seemed to us to be a large snake darting through the leaves and dried grass. The whippoorwill and the large gray owl seemed delighted to accompany us from the start to the end of our journey. She with her song, and he with his whoo-whoo. On our way we came to a stream, which made up from the main river, around the head of which we had to travel, and back to the river which was our only guide to the farm where my uncle lived."
Martha Ann and her children reached Fort Monroe's safety in 1863. They arrived as freed people, rather than with the "contraband" status of blacks who had arrived in 1861 and 1862, because Hanover County was now one of the Virginia counties within the coverage of the Emancipation Proclamation. But they arrived in time to participate in the turbulent remaking of Hampton, where Southern slaves, free blacks, Union military, and Northern missionaries had embarked on their first large-scale encounter. They would soon settle for good on Wine Street in now-Union-held Hampton. George's father arrived the next year, and then the four siblings whom slavery had dispersed.
The new history scholarship stresses the hitherto unchro-nicled humanitarian crisis generated by the many slaves' escape. There were no protective public services yet in place. A completely unprepared Union witnessed the deaths of hundreds of thousands of former slaves from malnutrition and disease. Again, the autobiography supports this revisionist view. George recounts the exploitative situation at the hands of a white landowner into which the Fields family immediately fell. They soon escaped this version of freedom that was pretty much indistinguishable from slavery, only to face deprivation back in Hampton. They lived in a shack, while scrambling for work and food. Even if George's sunny attitude and the family's can-do spirit almost turn the story into a grand adventure, it is evident that life was hard.
War and School Down South: 1866-1878Next comes the period when the freedmen's work ethic, desire for education, and quest for civil and economic rights constructed a new society, albeit one separate from white existence. The Fields in particular survived this process and not too badly, according to the autobiography. Again, however, the dark side of the period presents itself in the account, even though Hampton for the time being was less repressive than other Southern locales. A racist mob murders his brother William. A ship captain wrongly accuses George of theft, although he is acquitted. Still, George's story emphasizes the positive during his pursuits of schooling and employment.
The Fields family put great emphasis on education, yet every member had to help in supporting the family. Accordingly, while George intermittently pursued a public education in Hampton from his 1863 arrival through 1875, he also worked as a culler on an oyster boat, as a hack driver, and as a waiter on a famous steamboat:"How happy, for never before had he handled so much money in all his life, and how happy was he when he could, after each payday, run home and place in his mother's lap every dollar of his earnings, knowing as he did that she knew better how to spend it, which she always did for the benefit of her children. If when I gave her the money she thought I needed anything in the way of clothing, she would go to the store and make her selection. It was not always what I wanted, but I was trained to take what she gave without a frown on my face. However I felt like objecting or frowning, the objecting or frowning had better be hidden behind a countenance of complete satisfaction, supplemented with a smile of approval. She did not believe in dressing her children up in fashionable dress and high-priced clothes, but in living within your means and in looking out for a rainy day, a lesson she taught all of her children in our home school of economics (a word with which our dear mother and none of the children were at that time acquainted but unconsciously practiced) and day after day brings to us who are still alive some new lesson in economy."In 1875, with his younger sister Catherine's encouragement, he got serious about education. They both graduated from the rigorous Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute in 1878. The American Missionary Association had opened that school in April 1868 with fifteen students and five teachers. The students had to be of good character, able to read and write at a fifth-grade level, and be 15-to-25 years old. The teachers provided a three-year program. The school's success owed in good part to its first principal, Brevet Brigadier General Samuel Chapman Armstrong, who moved quickly to attain independence from the AMA. The school prospered. By 1887, the school was roughly at the level of a high school.Armstrong took great interest in his students. Booker T. Washington '75 owed him much. But that exceptional student was not alone in getting attention. Armstrong also helped, and pushed along, George Washington Fields. He was pivotal in getting George summer work as a waiter up North.
Work and School Up North: 1879-1890
Immediately after graduation, George headed north for full-time work. A series of jobs as waiter at famous resorts and as manservant for prominent families led to a position from 1881 through 1887 as butler for the governor of New York, Alonzo B. Cornell.
After hours, George consumed more education from tutors and from schools, studying everything from French to medicine. But law was what grabbed him. Soon he was reading law with a lawyer. Reading law, the tutelage method to become an attorney, was then the norm, rather than attending law school. But two years of reading law only made him want to go to a real law school. There were then merely a few law schools of any consequence in the country. He selected Yale. However, Alonzo Cornell, who was the eldest son of Cornell's founder Ezra Cornell, talked George into going to Cornell Law School instead. That encouragement is a bit startling, as the Law School did not yet exist. In the fall of 1887 George would arrive in Ithaca as a member of the school's inaugural class.
George followed a demanding curriculum to his graduation in 1890. The Law School's catalogue for 1889–1890 ordained:"Each member of the Senior Class who is a candidate for a degree, is required to prepare and deposit with the Faculty, at least one month before graduation, a thesis, not less than forty folios in length, upon some legal topic selected by himself and approved by the Faculty. The production must be satisfactory in matter, form, and style; and the student presenting it is examined upon it."Accordingly, George presented a typed thesis, entitled Trial by Jury. This markedly anti-jury work appears, in its original form, in "The Indomitable George Washington Fields."
Return to Hampton: 1879-1890
The family had stayed close, with Martha Ann always at its heart. The 1880 census had shown his siblings John (laborer), James (teacher), and Catherine (teacher) to be living with their mother in their original home on Wine Street in Hampton. Down the street lived brother Robert (farm laborer) and his family. (On June 14, 1880, the census taker had found George working for the summer as a waiter in a hotel and living with his younger sister Maria, who had married and moved with her husband to Andover, Massachusetts.)So after Cornell Law School, in the fall of 1890, George returned to Hampton to practice law. In those days, a law school graduate needed to apprentice for a period and take the bar exam. George did both. His older brother James was now a married lawyer. George read law in James's law office, and he took an oral examination before three judges. He was admitted to the Virginia bar in April 1891.
By this time, the detail in George's autobiography is really thinning out. He wrote it for his family. Accordingly, he emphasizedhis early life, which would be of more interest and less known to his progeny than his life as a lawyer.
A big, albeit unmentioned, event was the 1891 death of his beloved mother. George soon began building his own family. On November 28, 1892, he married Sarah (Sallie) Haws Baker, who had attended the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute, and who appeared on later censuses as a chiropodist but in her obituary as a hairdresser. Of their long and happy union, George's autobiography says simply that "her constant help, encouragement and inspiration was of inestimable value to me. The issue of our marriage was a girl and a boy. My son died when but an infant." George and his siblings did well. His extended family became one of the wealthiest black families on the Virginia Peninsula. George lived at 124 Wine Street, in a very nice house just down the street from that extended family, some of whom still lived where Martha Ann had first settled the family. The back part of his lot was marshy, but George filled it in and grew corn there.His life at the bar is harder to fill in than that marsh. His autobiography relates only a single but momentous event of his later life, and indeed closes with this result of a fishing accident:
"In 1896 I had the great misfortune to lose my sight. This for a time handicapped me and caused me to feel that all for this life was lost. But being spurred by an indomitable spirit and the determination to win at all hazards, after many agonizing hours of prayer, helped by my devoted wife and the memory of my dear mother's admonition "Come on, children," I took a new view of life and continued to struggle. The confidence of the people was an incentive."
He nonetheless became a leading lawyer in the area. An obituary noted: "He built up a large law practice among the colored and white population in Hampton." He popped up regularly in the newspaper. He represented Eliza Baker in a divorce case, and Gertrude Lively in another. He represented the victim in a successful criminal-assault prosecution. He often appeared as defense counsel. A local newspaper vividly, and offensively, described a victory from 1898 in a Hampton criminal case:
Eli Downing, the proprietor of a shady establishment situated within a stone's throw of the court house of this county, was yesterday [tried for] a vicious assault upon James Luster. Both are colored. Downing was represented by Attorney George W. Fields. He was acquitted, the jury being out less than five minutes.
The offense for which Downing was indicted was committed on the night of August 9 at his place of business on Court street, known as the Old Dominion restaurant. A game of crap, in which Luster had, shortly before the assault occurred, been a participant, was in progress. Owing to a misunderstanding he had been barred out by the other gamblers. To make matters worse, he had parted with his cash and hence was not in the humor to continue the proceedings on a Sunday-school basis. He
It was at this juncture that Eli Downing, the proprietor of this Court street crap gambling concern, took part in the fracas. Luster had told him but a moment before that his maternal parent was a quadruped of the genus Canis, an allegation which he at first attempted to resent with a base ball bat. A friend interfered to save Luster's head, however, and Downing, a few minutes later, assaulted him with his fist, striking him with his right hand, on one of the fingers of which he wore a large ring, which is said to have served himalmost as well as a pair of brass knuckles. In the affair that followed Luster was badly hurt.To the spectators in the court room the evidence was clearly against Downing. No effort was made to prove that the row was due to any other cause than a game of crap, and the only excuse that the prisoner put forward for assaulting Luster was that he had made use of offensive language. But the jurors saw the matter in a different light. In their eyes Downing was justified, after permitting Luster to engage in a gambling game, in making an assault because the latter had used toward him the words referred to. They thereupon acquitted the prisoner. But their verdict is severely criticized as one which, despite the fact that their intention was good, encourages lawlessness.George stayed true to his roots throughout his life. He remained attached to the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute, performing an "interesting solo part" in the Hampton Singers' presentation of plantation songs at the annual Armstrong League's meeting in 1917. He fought for black voting rights throughout his life, and was considered a leader of his race. He always played an active role in civic and religious affairs. He served, for example, on the board of the Weaver Orphan Home. He was long a trustee of the Third Baptist Church and superintendent of its Sunday School.On August 19, 1932, he died at the Dixie Hospital in Hampton after an illness of two weeks. The funeral was an impressive gathering. Of his siblings, only Maria and Catherine survived George. Sallie Fields passed away on December 19, 1944.
Their daughter, Inez C. Fields Scott (1900–1978), grew to be a person of significance. She graduated from the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute in 1914 and Boston University School of Law in 1922. She became the second black woman admitted to the Massachusetts bar in 1924. She worked in the office of former Assistant United States Attorney General William H. Lewis. She married Frederick Conklin Scott, a professor of industrial education, in 1925. They returned to Hampton, where she became the third black woman admitted to the Virginia bar in 1927. Using her maiden name professionally, she joined her father's practice in Hampton in 1928. The 1930 census reports Inez, her husband, and her son, Frederick George Scott, living at 124 Wine Street with George and Sallie. Frederick George Scott graduated from North Carolina Central University School of Law in 1956 and married Juanita Thorpe in 1958.Their children are Frederick George Scott II (a logistics specialist at a technology company in Bloomington, Indiana) who married Tiffany Clayton, and Lynne Inetta Scott (a teacher of communications at City College of New York) who married Roland H. Jackson. In 1985 the latter couple had a son, Clinton P. Jackson, who graduated from Hampton University and then from Southern University Law Center on May 12, 2012.