Legal History

Law prof stumbles upon story of early black Cornell law grad, the topic of his new book

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Taking a break from proofreading his new book on civil procedure in 2004 proved fortuitous for a Cornell University law professor.

Looking through the school’s digital card catalog, Kevin M. Clermont discovered a law school thesis written in 1890 by a man he had never before heard of, who would become the subject of a future book. The Indomitable George Washington Fields: From Slave to Attorney was self-published this month, reports the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

Further Internet research led Clermont to an obituary for Fields, a former slave who worked as a butler for New York’s governor before he earned his law degree at Cornell, appearing in an 1890 photo of the law school’s graduating class, and went into private practice. An autobiography also proved invaluable.

By the time Fields wrote it, “he was blind, and some of it was gibberish,” Clermont told the newspaper. “But if you look at the keyboard and decide his fingers are one to the left of home key, you can decode it. It was a fair amount of work, but the voice, the tone, the work are all his.

“That’s the centerpiece of the book.”

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