In 1854, George Washington Fields was born into enslavement on a Virginia plantation. At age 36, he graduated as a member of the first class of Cornell Law School, the school’s first Black graduate and the only formerly enslaved person to graduate from Cornell.
The Law School installed a portrait of Fields in Myron Taylor Hall on Aug. 12 to commemorate his accomplishments.
Fields’ journey to law school began during the Civil War, when his mother led her children on a dramatic escape from the plantation to Union-held Hampton, Virginia. Fields subsequently worked to support his family while pursuing an education, eventually enrolling in Cornell Law School in 1887. Upon graduating, he returned to Hampton, where he became a leading lawyer, forging ahead in his practice despite being blinded in an accident in 1896. He fought for civil rights throughout his life and was a devoted community member and family man until his death in 1932.
“Fields was a brilliant student and lawyer, and his life story is a powerful exemplar of an American experience that was at once painful and transformative,” says Jens Ohlin, Allan R. Tessler Dean and professor of law. “My sincere hope is that students, faculty, staff and alumni will walk by this portrait every day and be inspired and moved by it. I know I will.”
Fields’ story was largely unknown until Kevin Clermont, Robert D. Ziff Professor of Law, came across his unpublished autobiography in the archives of a Hampton museum. The work appeared in print in 2013, as part of Clermont’s book “The Indomitable George Washington Fields: From Slave to Attorney.”
When Cornell Law commissioned the work from local artist Terry Plater, she was in the midst of a portraiture project honoring members of her own family from first half of the 20th century – contemporaries of Fields who likely shared similar experiences as enslaved people.
“For me, painting George Washington Fields’ portrait was a joyous act of public and personal history,” said Plater, who was associate dean for academic affairs at Cornell Graduate School until her retirement. “I am grateful for the foresight Cornell Law School has had in surrounding its students with images reflective of their many histories. I’m hopeful that this gesture, these images, will make a difference in their individual lives and in their collective imagination.”
The portrait hangs above a fireplace in the Eduardo Peñalver Foyer of Myron Taylor Hall. The Law School commissioned the portrait as part of a foyer naming gift, which was made possible by more than 100 alumni and friends who made gifts honoring former Dean Eduardo Peñalver ’94.
Owen Lubozynksi is a freelance writer for Cornell Law School.