CHARLESTON, S.C. (AP) — The only disagreement expressed at the event dedicating the municipal courtroom at 180 Lockwood Blvd. in Charleston to Richard E. Fields was over the year of his birth. Was it 1920, as written on the new plaque, or 1919, as Fields claims.
It was a challenge to find solid evidence of the retired judge’s birth date, admitted City Councilman Peter Shahid, who helped organize the Aug. 25 ceremony. The plaque couldn’t be produced without it. If its date is correct, Fields will be 102 on Oct. 1.
Or perhaps he will be 103, in accordance with the information his father provided him many years ago.
Either way, he is an example to many in the city, from civic leaders and council members to attorneys and judges, several of whom expressed gratitude at the ceremony, which Fields and members of his family joined via Zoom.
Fields graduated from West Virginia State College in 1944, then Howard University’s law school in 1947. He stayed in Washington, D.C., working as a waiter to save some money before returning to Charleston. He met many rising attorneys who invited Fields to join them in various big cities, according to his daughter, Diane Fields Reed. But he was adamant about returning home to be with his parents and to serve the people of Charleston.
While in D.C., Fields would send via post his dirty clothes to his mother to wash and return. As soon as he became a licensed attorney, he bought her a washing machine.
In 1949, Fields became the first Black attorney to run a law office in Charleston since Reconstruction. In 1969, he became the city’s first Black municipal judge, a position he held until becoming a Family Court judge in 1975. In 1980, he was elected a circuit judge, and served until his retirement from the bench in 1992.
That first full year he practiced law in South Carolina, he earned $500, Shahid said.
It was Mayor Palmer Gaillard who nominated him to the municipal court, and City Council at the time approved the appointment unanimously.
He has been active in civic and business affairs, helping to establish Liberty National Bank in 1980, serving on the board of trustees of Claflin University and becoming involved in rural land preservation.
Fields was among the older generation of mentors who helped usher in a wave of Black legislators and legal professionals in the 1970s and ’80s.
Charleston City Council voted to approve the naming of the courtroom on Sept. 8, 2020, but the pandemic delayed the ceremony. At the event, Mayor John Tecklenburg read from the minutes of the council meeting at which Fields’ nomination to the bench was approved, then addressed Fields directly, praising his intellect, compassion and demeanor.
“You were more than a trendsetter, you were a leader,” he said.
Emmanuel J. Ferguson, associate municipal court judge, said Fields paved the way for African Americans like him and achieved “a high idea which all judges in the city of Charleston wish to aspire to.”
Visible on a couple of big screens in the courtroom, Fields was surrounded by family.
When asked if he’d like to offer remarks, Fields said: “There are times in your life when you are hopefully going to make the great speech of your life, then you can’t find the words to accomplish that.”
But he did manage to find some words, saying he was honored to have spent a long career serving the people of South Carolina and overwhelmed by the attention he was receiving now.
“I’m 103 years old,” he finished. “I will probably want to say something to you again 10 years from now.”