Descendant chronicles life of slave at Fort Monroe

HAMPTON

Ajena Cason Rogers has spent more than 20 years researching other people's history through her work with the National Parks Service.

She had heard stories of James Apostles Fields, an escaped slave who went on to graduate from Howard University Law School and serve in the Virginia House of Delegates. Still, it wasn't until this year that Rogers, a fifth-generation member of the Fields family, took a deeper look at her own family story.

At Fort Monroe on Saturday, Rogers and Drusilla Pair, a family historian and genealogist, chronicled the early part of Fields' life, including his family's quest for freedom.

In 1861, three escaped slaves sought freedom with the Union Army at Fort Monroe. Maj. Gen. Benjamin Butler declared the men "contraband of war" because the Confederates treated them like property and used them as part of their war efforts. As word spread, thousands of slaves - including the Fields family - flocked to Fort Monroe, or "Freedom Fort."

Rogers and Pair painted scenes of brutality and desperation, strength and hope: a teenage Fields setting out in search of freedom; a mother whipped and betrayed by cruel masters; a dangerous family journey.

In character as Fields' mother, Rogers sang about watching her children sold and her family fractured.

"I'm troubled, I'm troubled, I'm troubled in mind," she sang. "If Jesus don't help me, I surely must die."

While Rogers had heard pieces of Fields' story growing up, she said descendants have always focused on his accomplishments, glossing over what it took for him to achieve them.

Four generations of descendants attended the presentation Saturday, including Rogers' 98-year-old grandmother, Margaret Fields Johnson, who offered her thoughts:

"We've got to realize that we've come a long way, but we've got a long way yet to go."

Sarah Hutchins, 757-222-5131,sarah.hutchins@pilotonline.com


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