On this day in 1847, a man then in his early thirties and living in Richmond sat down to write his autobiography:
Richmond January 23th 1847
from my own observations I have seen and heard many things which I shall never forget and as I wish to see how the world go while I am in it I have come to the conclusion to notice a few of them for my owne benefit in future years …
He recalls being his mother’s “pet” and of once being scalded by a boiling water before casually revealing that “the next thing to be noticed is the manner that I was raised which is very simple as may be suposed as I am of that colore of which it is thought that we are not entitle to much favour being shown us.”
The author, in other words, is black. And a slave. Rather than elaborate, though, he merely says that “the reader may judge in what situation I were placed.”
Fields Cook is frustrating like that, but this is also what makes him interesting. He was not writing for abolitionists in Boston. His narrative—which stretches to about thirty-two manuscript pages and was dropped off at the Library of Congress in 1902—was part of no cause greater than his own personal awakening. As one scholar has suggested, he considered his life as a slave to be incidental, and what towered over all was his religious “quest for salvation.”
Cook went on to live a remarkable life. He purchased his freedom in 1850, became a Baptist minister, and after the Civil War worked on behalf of the rights of freedpeople. He even ran for Congress in 1869 as a Republican, but received just 1 percent of the vote.
IMAGE: “A Barber in Richmond,” London Illustrated News, 1862 (Valentine Richmond History Center). The engraving depicts an African American man shaving a white patron. Black men who owned and operated barber shops also worked as cuppers and leechers. Fields Cook, who was born into slavery, worked as a leech doctor in Richmond before becoming a Baptist minister and a Republican Party leader after the Civil War (caption information from the Library of Virginia).