Cook was born into slavery in King William County. The names of his parents and the name of the family who owned him are not known, nor is it clear when or under what circumstances he acquired or took his surname. He was described several times as being of mixed-race ancestry. On January 23, 1847, Fields, as he then identified himself, began writing a narrative of his life, one of the longest manuscripts known to have been composed by an enslaved Virginian. The first thirty-two pages of the memoir survive and in 1902 were deposited in the Library of Congress. He recorded that he spent his youth in the Virginia countryside, where his relationship with his master's family was close and complex. His dearest boyhood companion, the son of his master, delivered the most cutting blow of his young life when he abruptly began treating Fields as a slave. Years later the two reconciled and the white boy gave him two priceless gifts, an introduction to Christianity and literacy. Fields's criticism of slavery in his memoir was subtle, unlike his condemnation of Nat Turner for provoking a wave of terror against unoffending slaves in his region.
Church and Politics
After the Civil War, Cook became a Baptist minister and for several months was pastor at a church in the Chesterfield County coalfields under the auspices of the American Baptist Home Mission Society. Through his position he engaged as one of the most important African American leaders in Richmond. Late in May 1865 federal military authorities imposed pass and curfew restrictions on freedpeople and expelled hundreds from Richmond. At the same time, they reinstated the wartime municipal police force, which, together with provost guards, handled African Americans roughly. Cook and several other church leaders collected evidence of military and civilian misbehavior and called a mass meeting in June. That gathering approved a memorial detailing their grievances, informing the larger public that they alone had been steadfast in their loyalty to the Union, and arguing that the policies of the city's ruling authority harkened back to a discredited past rather than heralding a new era of liberty. Cook chaired the delegation chosen at that mass meeting to present their case to the governor and on June 16, 1865, to the president of the United States.
Cook represented the city in the first state convention of African Americans, which met in Alexandria in August 1865. The convention named him a vice president and asked him to write its address to the public. Cook argued powerfully that African Americans deserved full and legal equality and must have the vote for their own protection. He also wrote that Virginia's prosperity depended on harmony between the races and required a productive working relationship based on the equality of rights, duties, and protections. Cook's thoroughly radical vision was wildly at variance with the pledge of protection based on obedience and subservience that the state's white leaders offered. It was a vision that only the Radical wing of the Republican Party then embraced, but it also squared with Cook's own experience as a self-made, self-emancipated man who knew that he was anyone's equal in God's sight. As he had prospered after becoming free, so too should large numbers of his race, provided they were given opportunity, choice, and protection.
From 1867 to 1869 Cook worked tirelessly for the Republican Party. An effective organizer frequently sent into the countryside to rally rural freedmen, he engaged in important battles over strategy that put him at odds with many influential Republicans. His dream of full political freedom for blacks made him seem a natural ally of the Radical Republicans, but his inclusive view of the party often brought him into conflict with the Radical leaders. Cook favored an alliance with former Whig Unionists if they were willing to join the great mass of freedmen in the Republican Party and work to modernize the state. He argued that the party should disavow land confiscation and even make room in the leadership for Whigs who had supported the Confederacy. During the summer of 1867, party rank and file instead heeded the strident voice of James Wesley Hunnicutt, the radical editor of the Richmond New Nation. After the election for the constitutional convention in October of that year demonstrated that most white Virginians opposed the Republican Party, Cook could not resist criticizing Hunnicutt and his followers for alienating potential influential allies. Although finding fault with some Republican leaders and policies, Cook continued to serve on the party's ward and executive committees, and he was secretary of the congressional district convention in May 1868. He supported the regular state Republican ticket in the watershed election of 1869, but in an unsuccessful campaign as an independent candidate for a seat in Congress that year he received less than 1 percent of the vote.
Cook did not live to see his native state take the final steps in stripping African American men of the franchise that he had fought for and claimed as a right and necessity for three decades. Cook died at his Alexandria home on January 21, 1897, and was buried probably in the city's Douglass Memorial Cemetery, of which he was a founder.
- Untitled Slave Narrative (1847)
ca. 1817 - Fields Cook is born into slavery in King William County.
ca. 1834 - Fields Cook, an enslaved African American living in King William County, receives permission from his owner to live and work in Richmond, where he likely hires himself out.
1850 - By this year, Fields Cook gains his freedom from slavery.
1860 - By this year, the former slave Fields Cook purchases and frees his wife and at least two of his children. The census lists him as a waiter.
August 1865 - Fields Cook represents Richmond in the first state convention of African Americans, which meets in Alexandria. He is named a vice president and asked to write the convention's address to the public.
1867–1869 - Fields Cook works as an activist for the Republican Party in Virginia, serving as secretary of a congressional district convention. He supports an inclusive party that even includes former Whigs and Confederates.
December 6, 1869 - The convention of the Colored National Labor Union convenes in Washington, D.C. Fields Cook serves as one of the 214 delegates.
1870 - Fields Cook and his wife move to Alexandria, where he works for a time as an agent for the local Freedman's Savings and Trust Company bank.
1872 - Fields Cook sells his house in Richmond.
1883 - Fields Cook leaves his position as pastor of the Third Baptist Church in Alexandria following several disputes within the congregation. He later serves as pastor of the city's Ebenezer Baptist Church.
January 21, 1897 - Fields Cook dies at his Alexandria home and is probably buried in the city's Douglass Memorial Cemetery, of which he was a founder.
1902 - The first thirty-two pages of Fields Cook's narrative of his life as a slave are deposited at the Library of Congress.
Cite This Entry
- APA Citation:
O'Brien, J. T., & the Dictionary of Virginia Biography. Fields Cook (ca. 1817–1897). (2013, December 11). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Cook_Fields_ca_1817-1897.
- MLA Citation:
O'Brien, John T. and the Dictionary of Virginia Biography. "Fields Cook (ca. 1817–1897)." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 11 Dec. 2013. Web. READ_DATE.
First published: November 21, 2011 | Last modified: December 11, 2013