Fields Cook was born into slavery on a Virginia plantation in 1817. His “A Scetch of My Own Life by Fields Cook” is one of the few, if only, surviving manuscripts written before the Civil War by a slave still in bondage. It was written in 1847. By focusing on the personal rather than the political, Cook offers readers a rare glimpse into the private lives of enslaved people.
The historic document recently was re-discovered by Katherine Bassard, senior vice provost for faculty affairs and professor of African American literature in the Department of English at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond. Professor Bassard made the discovery in a box at the Library of Congress labeled “African American miscellaneous.”
Dr. Bassard and her colleagues are turning the manuscript into a digitized, searchable, and freely downloadable file in its original form. “It’s the first enslaved writer of an autobiography, the first slave narrative with manuscript provenance, and the first African American writer writing primarily for an audience other than White northerners,” Dr. Bassard said.
Cook was able to purchase freedom for himself and his two sons in the early 1850s. Cook went on to become a successful Virginia entrepreneur working as a barber, leech doctor, real estate owner, bath house proprietor, and pastor. He even ran for Congress as an independent candidate in 1869.
Professor Bassard also may produce a print edition of the manuscript that would include biographical information on Cook and some primary documents from his life after slavery. Dr. Bassard is a graduate of Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. She holds a master’s degree from Virginia Commonwealth University and a Ph.D. from Rutgers University in New Jersey.