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Fields and Mary Jo Jackson Bratton
Fields's Observations: The Slave Narrative of a Nineteenth-Century Virginian. From The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography. Vol. 88, 75-93
Richmond, VA: The Virginia Historical Society, 1980.


In 1980, historian Mary J. Bratton introduced a previously unpublished narrative, titled "Fields's Observations: The Slave Narrative of a Nineteenth-Century Virginian," in The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography. The 32-page handwritten manuscript that Bratton reproduced is dated January 23, 1847. It has been housed in the Library of Congress since 1902 ("Cook, Fields"). The narrative describes the life of its unidentified author, "Fields," from his childhood to his early adulthood.

Many scholars have attributed the narrative to Fields Cook, a Richmond preacher and medical practitioner and leader of Richmond's black community after the Civil War. Cook was born in King William County, near Richmond, Virginia, in 1814 ("Fields Cook"; Bratton, p. 77). Nothing certain is known about his early life; biographies rely exclusively on "Fields's Observations." Cook was freed in 1853 and continued to work in Richmond as a barber and medical doctor ("Cook"). When the Civil War began, he was a lay preacher in Richmond's First African Baptist Church and owned property worth $2,400. A prominent black leader, he helped organize a meeting in 1865 to protest the treatment of black soldiers. In May 1867 he was one of five black men appointed to the federal grand jury that indicted former President of the Confederacy Jefferson Davis for treason. Cook was involved in the efforts to establish a biracial Republican party in Virginia in the late 1860s. He supported black male suffrage but was otherwise considered a conservative leader. In 1869 he ran for U.S. Congress as an independent candidate and lost ("Cook"). According to the Library of Virginia, he died in 1897.

Like the author of the narrative, Fields Cook was a Richmond resident, and Bratton says that "internal evidence of the document" suggests that "the author was between thirty and thirty-five in 1847," while Fields Cook was thirty-three that year (p. 77). Both men were married to women named Mary, and both engaged in Christian ministry: the author of the narrative says that he feels a call to ministry, and Cook became a lay preacher. Bratton says that "nothing about Fields is inconsistent with Cook's record" (p. 77).

According to his "Observations," Fields grew up "in the country" (p. 93). He mentions his master taking trips to Richmond but does not specifically mention the state or area in which he is raised. Much of Fields's narrative is devoted to describing his childhood. He is raised in a "very simple" manner, Fields says, "as may be supposed as I am of that colore of which it is thought that we are not entitle[d] to much favour being shown us," and yet he says that while a child, he "never knew what the yoke of oppression was" (p. 78). His closest friend is a "white boy," with whom he is close until the two are "nearly grown"; at this point, the friend begins to "boast of the superiority" he has over Fields (p. 78). Fields writes extensively of his attempts, starting when he is "very young," to be converted to Christianity (p. 79). While his white friend is converted as a youth, his own efforts fail until after he has moved to Richmond and been married two years. He also describes several near encounters with death, including being scraped off a horse's back by a low-hanging limb, being attacked by a dog, jumping out of a carriage after a horse bolts, and being crushed by an ox-cart and confined to bed for six weeks. Fields concludes: "this must be the lord who hath saved me from death in so many perrilous circumstances" (p. 87).

As a young man, Fields labors in the field. He begins several years of courtship, first in the country and then in Richmond. When he and an unnamed fiancée are "disappointed of [their] expectations" for a reason not given in the text, he requests and is granted permission from his masters to move to Richmond; it is not clear from the narrative why his masters allow him to go or why Fields refers to his masters in the plural (p. 89). Fields courts other women in Richmond until he meets his future wife, Mary, at a Christmas party in 1835. His wife is converted to Christianity the next summer while he is away in western Virginia with his master. Fields determines that "if there was any god I would [find] him and so I went to work and I continued to work until the lord saw fit to bless my soul" about two years later (p. 92). From this point on, he believes "that god has called me to the ministry" and that if he does not ever become a minister, it is only because of laws preventing him (p. 92). Bratton notes that the Virginia legislature enacted a law in 1823 that prevented blacks from preaching or conducting religious meetings (p. 92). Fields's narrative concludes with an account of his education. He was taught to read and spell by his white friend as a child, he says, and was not afraid to keep his books even after Nat Turner's rebellion, when other slaves were burning theirs, because his books had been given to him by his masters (p. 93). The narrative ends abruptly, with the statement, "but all the Books I had been given to me by my owners and therefore I know them though many a poor fellow burned his books for fear"; it concludes without a final punctuation mark and may therefore not be the actual end of the narrative (p. 93).

Bratton points out that it is unusual that Fields was "not writing as a fugitive, as most of the slave narrators were, but rather as one conditioned to cope within the confines of the Virginia slave code," and that his narrative "was not designed for the Northern antislavery audience, nor even as an explicit indictment" of slavery (p. 75). It instead deals only with his daily life and personal history, assuming that the reader already knows about the typical circumstances of slavery. Fields also explains that he is noting some of the things he has "seen and heard . . . for my owne benefit in future years" (p. 78). The personal nature of this originally unpublished and unedited narrative distinguishes it from most slave narratives.

Works Consulted: "Cook, Fields," African American National Biography, ed. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., vol. 2, New York: Oxford UP, 2008; "Fields Cook (ca. 1817–January 21, 1897)," The Library of Virginia (accessed January 8, 2011).

Erin Bartels

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