Retired Circuit Judge Richard Fields sits in his wood-paneled office in his West Ashley home, surrounded by evidence of a life that’s touched so many and seen so much. The walls are crowded with plaques and certificates and photographs, the shelves full of thick-bound volumes and bulging files. He’s 100 years old now, and been retired from the bench since 1992, but people still show up at the front door looking for advice.
And of course, he gives it, because giving has been so much of what Fields is about. The son of an illiterate father and a mother with a grade-school education, Fields rose to become a titan in both the African-American and legal communities, and set a philanthropic example through his fund with Coastal Community Foundation.
Since 2007, Fields’ fund has awarded $66,500 to support causes such as the Center for Heirs’ Property Preservation and the CSO Gospel Choir, and organizations such as Howard University and Centenary United Methodist Church. Fields was introduced to CCF by a legal colleague, and liked how the foundation allowed him to guide the direction of the grant money his fund produced.
“Given Judge Fields’ long tenure of leadership in our community, it was quite an honor that he would choose to work with us,” said Madeline McGee, the foundation’s director when Fields started his fund. “His desire to use his philanthropic giving to complement his community leadership efforts was something we were eager to help make happen.”
At times, his legal and philanthropic interests have intersected. As an attorney, Fields became familiar with heirs’ property, land deeded after emancipation that’s passed down without a will, and owned in common by all heirs. He later served on the board of the Center for Heirs’ Property Preservation, which helps residents clear title and manage other legal matters related to their land. The organization has since become a regular beneficiary of Fields’ grants through CCF.
I knew about that from practicing law, and I contributed whatever I could. Most people who are involved in trying to straighten out heirs’ property don’t have any money, so it’s a very important thing to have an organization that that’s spearheading this by putting up the cost of it. I’m not a fellow trying to settle all the problems in the world. But it’s a problem, and they’re doing a wonderful job.
—Retired Circuit Judge Richard Fields
‘You can’t live here’
Fields has been a pillar of the Charleston community since 1949, when he became the first black attorney since Reconstruction to open a law practice in the city. The confidence to make that move had been instilled years earlier, when Fields as a teenager worked sweeping up a downtown barber shop, and overheard countless conversations between black barbers and their white clientele.
“I began to see and understand that white people were just about like everybody else,” Fields recalled. “Here I am at about 14, 15, being the recipient of all of these conversations, listening in the barber shop. Most black youth never had that kind of contact with white people.”
There were so many moments like that, all of them combining to help set Fields on the path to Howard Law School, a municipal judgeship, and beyond. He credits his father with steering him toward a path to success. When Fields wanted to drop out of middle school to join friends earning $6 a week delivering for a nearby drugstore, his strict father stood his ground.
“He said to me, ‘Well, where are you going to live?’ I said, ‘Well, I’m going to live right here,’” Fields recalled. “He said, ‘No, you can’t live here. You’ve become a man then. If you’re be making $6 a week and you’re working, you don’t need to live here. You can’t live here then. Now if you’re in school, you can live here.’ And here was this fellow who couldn’t read or write.”
He took another big step when he joined Centenary United Methodist Church, where he mingled in the pews with principals and educators. Another turning point came when he enrolled at Avery Normal Institute, a secondary school for African-Americans run by a missionary group from New York, where college first emerged as a reality.
“I had teachers who guided me,” Fields said. “I got what I couldn’t get at home. My mother and father were the most lovely people in the world, and they gave me everything they had, but they didn’t have that to give to me. I got that at Avery Institute and Centenary United Methodist Church. That’s where I got the vision, the spirit, the idea, because of the people I was able to meet.”
Otherwise? “There would have been no Judge Fields,” he said.
‘A grand life’
Thankfully there is, and his career progression from lawyer to judge allowed him to be generous with both his money and his time. He’s served on the board of banks, colleges, law schools, hospitals, chambers of commerce, and an organization providing services to at-risk women. He’s been honored by the Charleston County Bar Association, the South Carolina Senate, his alma mater West Virginia State University, Voorhees College, and the Center for Heirs’ Property Preservation, among many others.
U.S. Congressman James Clyburn credits Fields with providing advice that helped shape his political career, and honored his friend with recognition on the House floor in 2011. “His life story is an example of overcoming obstacles with integrity and leadership,” Clyburn said. “He continues, through his work with the Center for Heirs’ Property Preservation, higher education institutions, his church and his legal profession, to promote opportunity and justice for all.”
Philanthropy has become so important to Fields, he’s even included the Coastal Community Foundation in his legacy plans, fulfilling a pledge to share whatever he accumulated. “It’s been a grand life,” he said. And through giving, his grand life is helping others live a better one.
“You have to see things,” Fields said, thinking back over the steps that raised him from such humble beginnings to an office full of accolades and awards. “If you’ve never seen it, if you don’t know about it, how are you going to want it or aspire for it? I hope others will see it.”
Did you know?
The Center for Heirs Property Preservation began as a program of Coastal Community Foundation in the early 2000’s. CCF received a $500,000 grant from the Ford Foundation in 1996 to develop rural grantmaking and explore rural economic development.
Everywhere we went to hold forums and talk with the people about their greatest needs, questions of heirs’ property complications kept coming up. After CCF served as the program’s incubator and fiscal sponsor for several years, the Center branched off as a standalone 501(c)(3) nonprofit and now serves 15 counties in South Carolina.