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In December 1889, James A. Fields took his seat in Virginia’s House of Delegates. He had escaped slavery as a young man, attended school behind Union Army lines at Fort Monroe, earned a law degree, and became a successful attorney in Newport News. One of the last Black men elected to the General Assembly in the nineteenth century, he had a rare opportunity to help shape the laws that governed Virginia and its people. The fact that almost a hundred Black men won election to the Assembly in the 25 years after the Civil War has rarely appeared in Virginia textbooks and histories, other than those by pioneering Black scholars Luther P. Jackson and Alrutheus A. Taylor.

Fields is but one example of the legislators and other remarkable men and women who persevered in the face of barriers during the post-Civil War decades to create a new world for themselves and subsequent generations. These people are at the heart of Justice for Ourselves: Black Virginians Claim Their Freedom After Slavery, a new book published by the Library of Virginia in association with the University of Virginia Press. Written by Library staff members John Deal and Mari Julienne and former staff member Brent Tarter, Justice for Ourselves includes a foreword by Congresswoman Jennifer McClellan and an afterword by National Park Service supervisory park ranger Ajena Cason Rogers, a descendant of Fields.

Attorney and legislator James A. Fields.

Photograph in Luther Porter Jackson, Negro Office-Holders in Virginia, 1865–1895, Norfolk, VA: Guide Quality Press, 1945. (Enhanced image courtesy of VPM Media Corporation.)

Virginia’s people are its history. The fascinating life stories at the heart of the book center Black voices from across the state and highlight how Black Virginians strove to define freedom for themselves and shape a new Virginia after slavery. In the immediate postwar years, Black Virginians reunited with families separated by the slave trade; advocated for voting and other civil rights; worked to achieve an education; and, as members of the General Assembly, sponsored legislation to advance their interests (and those of white constituents, as well). Community-building and economic self-determination emerged by the turn of the century as African Americans carved out their own paths after white supremacists largely destroyed their ability to take a meaningful part in politics. These leaders and institutions helped lay the groundwork for the Civil Rights Movement of the twentieth century.

In Richmond, Lucy Goode Brooks helped establish an orphanage after the war for children who had been separated from their parents. She had a special affinity for their plight, as she had been forcibly separated from one of her daughters who had been sold to Tennessee and never seen again. The Friends’ Asylum for Colored Children operated for decades and continues to provide youth development and family services in the twenty-first century as the Friends Association for Children.

This broadside was likely printed about the time of the General Assembly elections in 1883 and highlighted the improvement in school funding during the years that the Readjuster Party, a biracial coalition of Black and white Virginians, was the majority.

Special Collections, Library of Virginia

Reuben Turner Coleman, who had been emancipated by his white father, transformed his Cumberland County community when he built a company that bottled mineral water from springs that he owned. He also established the resort town of Colemanville (later known as Lucyville). A longtime justice of the peace in the county, Coleman was an outspoken opponent of racial discrimination.

Jennie Dean, who had been born enslaved in Loudoun County, valued education and traveled throughout the North raising money for the school she founded in 1893. The Manassas Industrial School for Colored Youth provided a liberal arts education as well as training in skilled trades, and in the twentieth century served as the public regional high school for Black students in northern Virginia.

Justice for Ourselves builds on the work of the Library’s Dictionary of Virginia Biography project to document the lives of nineteenth century African American members of the Convention of 1867–1868, the House of Delegates, and Senate of Virginia, as well as other Black political leaders, teachers, clergymen, journalists, and entrepreneurs. It is based in extensive primary source research, especially from the Library of Virginia’s unparalleled collections, including vital statistics, census and tax records, deeds, wills, and other court records, election records, convention records and legislative journals, family Bibles, organization records, and newspapers. Many of these LVA materials that have been at the heart of our research are freely available online, including Virginia Chronicle (newspapers), Virginia Untold (documenting free and enslaved African Americans), and Chancery Records (cases of equity).

–John G. Deal, Mari Julienne, and Brent Tarter, editors of the Dictionary of Virginia Biography and co-authors of Justice for Ourselves: Black Virginians Claim Their Freedom After Slavery.

Join us to celebrate the release of Justice for Ourselves on June 20, at the Library of Virginia. The authors will be joined in a conversation with Congresswoman Jennifer McClellan and National Park Service Supervisory Park Ranger Ajena Rogers. The event kicks off with a reception at 6 p.m., followed by the talk at 6:30 p.m., and a book signing at 7:30 p.m.

This is a free event. Registration is required. Limited free parking is available in the deck underneath the Library building. For more information, see our events calendar or contact Anne McCrery at or 804.692.3568.

Copies of the book will be available for purchase at The Virginia Shop.

Header Image Citation

Florence Burke (left), Willie Burke, (right), and their children (left to right) William Tilman Burke, Bessie Payne Burke, and Viola Burke, circa 1890. (Burke Family Papers, 1847–1924, Accession 29879, Library of Virginia)

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