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Honoring Cornell’s first Black American law graduate

Read the full story by Susan Kelley in the Cornell Chronicle.

A stray Yankee shell hit the cabin porch just feet from where 9-year-old George Washington Fields and his family watched Union forces overpower Confederate troops at the plantation where the Fieldses were enslaved, in Hanover County, Virginia, in 1863.

Fields’ mother saw her chance, and took it.

Martha Ann Fields gathered her family’s meager belongings and fled with six of her children, traveling 90 miles by foot, dugout canoe, wagon and barge to the safety of Union-held territory. She urged them on, repeating “Come on, children.

That’s the title of a newly published autobiography by George W. Fields, Class of 1890, who would go on to become Cornell Law School’s first Black American graduate. He was one of the first three Black Americans to graduate from Cornell and the only formerly enslaved person to get a degree from the university. (While there were Black students in the 1870s, most were from Cuba and the Caribbean.)

The Law School will host a dramatic reenactment of the family’s escape to freedom, performed by a Fields descendant and a genealogical researcher, to celebrate the launch of Fields’ autobiography. “Come on, Children: The Autobiography of George Washington Fields, Born a Slave in Hanover County, Virginia,” was edited by Kevin Clermont, the Robert D. Ziff Professor of Law at Cornell Law School. The event, “Flight to Freedom: The Fields Family and Freedom’s Fortress,” will take place on Feb. 12, noon to 1 p.m., in Myron Taylor Hall.