Usually, he knows when something’s up.
Retired judge Richard E. Fields has accumulated enough accomplishments and gained enough insights during his long life to preempt most surprises.
But Thursday afternoon, on the occasion of Fields’ 100th birthday, family, friends, colleagues, clerks and legislators honored him in front of his West Ashley home with cheers, expressions of gratitude and a special announcement.
Circuit Judge Deadra Jefferson of Charleston, who now holds Fields’ seat on the bench, introduced the legislative delegation, which included Sens. Marlon Kimpson and Larry Grooms and Reps. David Mack and Wendell Gilliard. She called her mentor “a giant pillar in the community.” Then, addressing him directly, she said, “Many people stand on your shoulders.”
Grooms read the proclamation: The S.C. Department of Transportation has designated Spring Street on the Charleston peninsula — what once was a major commercial center of the city’s Black community — “Judge Richard E. Fields Street.” The signs likely will be mounted near 65 Spring St., the old location of Fields’ law office.
Flanking Fields for the photographs and holding up two highway signs were his former clerks and protégées.
In 1949, Fields became the first Black attorney to run a law office in Charleston since Reconstruction. In 1969 he became a 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. 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, Gilliard said.
“If you look at history, the things he has done, the people he has helped, he’s the true measure of a man,” Gilliard said.
The proclamation was the result of a bill introduced by Sen. Margie Bright Matthews, which was co-sponsored by the entire Charleston delegation.
Fields was moved and struggled at first to find the right words to say.
“In life, I have tried to be a giver, I have tried to be a person of strength — and I’m just this much from crying,” he said, putting an inch between his thumb and index finger.
Then he paid tribute to his parents who raised him in Charleston, where the family lived in an alley off St. Philip Street. They were not well educated (his father never learned to read or write), but they encouraged their son to shoot for the stars.
During his college and law school days, from 1940 to 1949, he would ship his dirty clothes home to his mother to be washed, ironed and returned via post.
After obtaining his law degree at Howard University, and passing the bar in Washington, D.C., friends tried to lure him to a big city up North to establish his practice. “No, I’m going home,” he told them.
One of the first things he did after becoming a licensed attorney was buy a Maytag washing machine for his mother, he said.
One day, a family friend encountered his father. “Johnny, how are you doing?” he asked.
“Oh, I don’t have any problems,” the elder Fields replied. “Richard has my problems.”
The young attorney understood this to be a generous compliment, he said. His father was proud, and confident that Richard Fields would use the law to help people.
At the celebration, two of Fields’ former clerks recalled his professional devotion and personal generosity.
Shirrese Brockington clerked for Fields in 1985-86, traveling with the judge across the state. Fields was especially determined to preside over cases in Orangeburg, she said. Every morning, before they hit the road, Fields’ late wife, “Miss Myrtle,” would make them breakfast.
Deborah Wright clerked for Fields during his first two years as a circuit judge and also traveled with him near and far.
“He was very patient, kind and respectful, very calm,” she said.
Fields, now at the beginning of his second century of life, reminisced about how the people who worked with him became like family, and how his experiences inside and outside the courtroom enriched him.
“This has been a great life for me,” he said.