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Fields, James Apostle (1844–1903)

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James Apostle Fields was a former enslaved person who became an influential black lawyer and teacher serving in the Virginia House of Delegates from 1890 to 1891. Although sources differ on the exact date in 1844 on which Fields was born, his birth is celebrated on the fourteenth of October.

James Apostle was born into slavery in Hanover County, Virginia, in 1844. Although both his parents, Washington Fields and Martha Ann Fields, were slaves, they lived on separate plantations. His mother’s maiden name is historically recorded as Berkley and Thornton.

Fields first became interested in law during his early years as a slave in Hanover County where he took care of white lawyers’ horses as they arrived for work. While tending to the horses, Fields observed courtroom proceedings and other work conducted at the Hanover courthouse.

In 1862 during the Civil War, Fields suffered a brutal beating from his owner which led to his escape from Hanover County, along with his brother George. They were eventually reunited with the rest of their family who had fled in 1863 to the Hampton, Virginia, area to live under the protection of the Union Army.  

In 1867 Fields entered Hampton Institute in Virginia and graduated four years later as a member of the first graduating class of the new black institution that nearly a decade later would educate another former slave, Booker T. Washington. After graduation, Fields became a teacher. In 1878 he entered Howard University Law School in Washington, D.C., graduating in 1881.

Fields practiced law in both Elizabeth City and James City, Virginia, from 1887 to 1890 and was appointed a member of the Virginia House of Delegates from 1890 to 1891 to fill an unexpired term. In 1893 Fields bought the Whittaker Building in Newport News, Virginia, which he used to establish the first African American hospital in the Hampton area. Later, in 1897, the building became his law office.

James A. Fields died on the November 23, 1903, at the age of fifty-nine. His house in Hampton still stands to the present day and is listed on both the Virginia Landmarks Register and the National Register of Historic Places.

Sources:

Donald W. Gunter, “James A. Fields (1844–1903),” http://www.encyclopediavirginia.org/Fields_James_A_1844-1903#start_entry; Donald W. Gunther, “James A. Fields,” Library of Virginia, http://mlkcommission.dls.virginia.gov/lincoln/pdfs/bios/fields_james_apostles.pdf.

Contributor:

University of Washington, Seattle

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