James Apostle Fields was born enslaved in 1844 in Hanover County, Va., about 60 miles east of Charlottesville. Fields’s parents, Washington Fields and Martha Ann Fields, lived on separate plantations.
According to the Library of Virginia, James Apostle Fields most likely learned to read and write on a plantation. He tended horses for lawyers who did business at the Hanover County Courthouse, where he watched the proceedings of the court and was inspired to study law.
After a brutal beating by a slave master, Fields escaped slavery in the early 1860s and met up with family members who had escaped earlier to join the Union Army.
Fields worked in the army’s Quartermaster Department, according to the Encyclopedia Virginia. After the Civil War ended, Fields became a watchman for the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands. In the late 1860s, Fields enrolled in the first class at Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute, which later became Hampton University. He graduated from Hampton in 1871.
Fields became active in Republican Party politics, and on Jan. 17, 1880, he won an election to become doorkeeper of the Virginia House of Delegates, according to the Library of Virginia.
“The year Fields entered law school he was completing a term in the Virginia House of Delegates,” according to “Emancipation: The Making of the Black Lawyer, 1844-1944,” by J. Clay Smith Jr. “He also served as a justice of the peace, thereby becoming Virginia’s first black judicial officer.”
In 1882, Fields graduated from Howard University Law School in Washington before returning to Virginia to set up his law practice. By 1884, he was licensed to practice law in Warwick County.
“Fields soon opened his office to other blacks, allowing them to study law under his tutelage for three nights a week, except in July and August,” according to “Emancipation.” “Drawing on his formal legal training at Howard University, Fields taught his students the practice and theory of law. They all passed the bar examinations on their first attempts.”
In 1885, Fields married Carrie E. Washington in Hampton. They had four sons. Among his many political accomplishments, Fields served as captain in a Hampton militia unit, as a justice of the peace, and as commonwealth’s attorney for Newport News and Warwick County.
In 1889, Fields was again elected to the Virginia General Assembly, representing Elizabeth City, James City, Warwick and York counties and Williamsburg.
But black elected officials were under fire in Virginia and throughout the Jim Crow South in the decades after the war. Fields attended a historic 1889 meeting in Richmond, where more than 100 prominent black men in Virginia protested election fraud and demanded that Congress investigate, according to Encyclopedia Virginia.
Fields didn’t seek reelection in 1891. He and another black lawyer, John H. Robinson, “were the last two blacks to serve in the Virginia General Assembly for years to come,” according to “Emancipation.”
By then, Fields had acquired great property wealth. Tax records indicate that in 1900, Fields owned at least 25 properties in Virginia, according to Encyclopedia Virginia. He died in 1903. Five years later, four doctors acquired permission from the Fields family to use the top floor of his elegant two-story red brick house in Newport News. The house, built in 1897, became the first hospital for black patients in that city. In 2002, the James A. Fields house was added to the National Register of Historic Places. It is open for tours.