Cornell University has always been “an institution where any person can find instruction in any study.” Professor Kevin Clermont‘s new book, The Indomitable George Washington Fields, is about Cornell Law School’s first African-American graduate, who received his law degree in 1890, having entered with the school’s very first class in 1887.
Fields was, indeed, indomitable: He was born a slave but escaped from slavery with his mother and siblings during the Civil War. He attended Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute (now Hampton University) and then, after working both in the south and the north, Cornell Law School. After returning to Hampton, Virginia, he practiced law for forty years until his death in 1932. For most of his years in practice he was blind as the result of an 1896 accident.
The details of Fields’ life, while fleshed out by Clermont in the first part of the book, are primarily presented in Fields’ autobiography, a transcript of which is included in the second part of the book. Clermont found the manuscript autobiography at the Hampton History Museum after his interest in Fields was piqued by Fields’ thesis advocating abolition of trial by jury. The thesis is also included in Clermont’s book.