The Cook Brothers, Fields and Jim, were born into slavery in King William County, Virginia, about 30 miles east of Richmond. Early in their careers, both men were involved in the liquor trade before their life stories sharply diverged. Jim became a world famous bartender; Fields became a Baptist minister and major early civil rights activist.
The names of their parents and the name of the family who owned them is not known, nor the origins of their surname. Fields who left a handwritten narrative of his early life says that he “never knew what the yoke of oppression was” so peaceful was his childhood. Although less is known of Jim Cook, the elder of the two, born about 1808, it appears the owner allowed him to be hired out, although the practice was strictly forbidden by Virginia law. Jim went to Richmond and while still a slave became a well known bartender and restaurant manager, associated with the Ballard House Hotel, shown here.Shown here in later life, Fields Cook at 17 years old circa 1834 asked to be able to join his brother in Richmond. His relationships with the family were close, especially to a son, and the owner agreed. As a child he had been taught to read, write and spell by the son and had books given to him by his masters — also against the law. In Richmond Fields likely worked with his brother at the Ballard, listed in the 1860 census as a waiter. He also was tending bar. As one writer put it: “He was six feet tall, literate, personable and industrious.” One could add, thrifty. By 1850 he had purchased his freedom, supplementing his earnings by working as a “leech doctor,” using traditional methods of healing.
Within a few years of arriving in Richmond, Fields met and married Mary, a domestic servant and they soon had a family of two sons and a daughter. By the onset of the Civil War, he had managed to free Mary from her bondage and purchase and free his children. In 1852 Fields had sufficient funds to buy several city lots and houses in Richmond, including a residence for his family. He also was baptized into the Baptist Church.
Meanwhile Jim Cook was carving out a high profile career as a Richmond bartender and saloon keeper, famed for his ability to craft mint juleps. His reputation spread across America and overseas when Edward, Prince of Wales, the playboy son of Queen Victoria who later became King Edward VII, visited Richmond.
As one reporter noted: “Having heard that Richmond boasts the best compounder of cooling drinks in the world, the prince undertook to try one.”
Cook provided a very tasty julep piled high with ice. Edward was so impressed with the drink that he ordered two more before leaving town the next morning. Followed by newsmen wherever Edward went, the prince’s favor made Jim Cook a global celebrity. It is said that the only thing his royal highness later recalled of Richmond was Cook’s julep.
Jim Cook also was an individual given to “soft soaping” the white population. When Confederate Gen. John Hunt Morgan visited Richmond in 1864, Jim sent him letter and a gift of food and liquor. Written in the third person, his letter said in part: “As a slave he bids General Morgan speed in his good and righteous work.” This sentiment apparently masked his true feelings. Just a few months before Appomattox, Richmond newspapers were reporting that Jim Cook had left Richmond and gone over to the Yankees, making a living by giving anti-South speeches in Washington, D.C. He subsequently was reported having died among African-American troops in the battle of Ft. Gilmore. Reports of his demise were premature. When the war ended and Union troops entered Richmond Jim soon was back in the city, a freed man, presiding over the bar at the Franklin House Hotel and mixing up mint juleps.
Meanwhile throughout the war Fields Cook had remained in Richmond, managing the bar and restaurant at the Ballard House. According to his narrative from his youth Fields believed “that God has called me to the ministry.” The Virginia Legislature in 1823, however, had enacted a law that prevented blacks from preaching or conducting religious services. After the war he was able to be ordained as a Baptist minister. Fields also became an ardent civil rights advocate.
The war had barely concluded when reinstated local officials and Federal troops began imposing the need for passes and a curfew on newly freed African-Americans and expelled hundreds of them from Richmond. Fields fought back. With other local church leaders, he spearheaded a drive to collect evidence of military and civilian mistreatment of blacks. He then chaired a delegation to make the case to President Andrew Johnson, In August 1865, Fields represented Richmond in the first state convention of African Americans, which met in Alexandria. He was named a vice president and designated to write the convention's address to the public.
As a result of his activism, Fields was chosen as one of the black men on the grand jury that indicted Jefferson Davis for insurrection. This action came two days less than one year after Davis had been captured, a period in which he languished without a trial in prison at Fort Monroe, outside Norfolk. The indictment, as one commentator put it, was “short and its language peculiar and some of its averments most singular.” For example, the indictment accused Davis in abetting the rebellion of “not having the fear of God before his eyes, nor weighing the duly of his said allegiance, but being moved and seduced by the instigation of the devil…”
Despite the Northern wartime chant of “hang Jeff Davis from a sour apple tree,” the judicial process did not move forward for another year while the former president of the Confederacy languished imprisoned under harsh conditions until he finally was released without a trial. The civilian jury that indicted Davis had a number of photos taken. On the photo below in which African-Americans are featured, I believe that Fields Cook is among them.
In 1869, Cook attended the National Convention of the Colored Men of America in Washington, D.C., and was elected to the national executive committee. Later the same year he was elected as a delegate to the Colored National Labor Union that also met in Washington.
In 1870 Cook and his wife moved to Alexandria, Virginia, where he initially worked as an agent for the local Freedman's Savings and Trust Company bank. After serving for a time as pastor of the Alexandria’s Third Baptist Church, Rev. Cook became founding pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church, a congregation that still exists and numbers some of Alexandria’s most notable citizens among its members. Its first meeting place was the now historic black Old Fellows Hall on S. Columbus Street, shown here as it looks today.
The Alexandria Gazette felt obliged to give the Rev. Cook a lengthy obituary because of his prominence in the city. Nonetheless the tone of the article was condescending, stating (incorrectly) that: “…Most of his knowledge of politics or history was acquired in ante bellum days in listening to groups of gentry while he was a servant.” In contrast, the piece was laudatory of Jim Cook, terming him: “…The famous barkeeper of Richmond, who was well and favorable known throughout Virginia.”
Born as slaves before the Civil War and working together as bartenders in Richmond, the Cook brothers took diametrically different pathways in life, Fields as a man of the cloth and civil rights activist; Jim as a saloon manager and acclaimed mixer of alcohol drinks. Both Cooks deserve to be remembered for their accomplishments in Virginia history.
Note: This post was gathered from a wide range of sources. Key among them were three: 1. “The Dictionary of Virginia Biography” and its entry on Fields Cook by John T. O’Brien, 2. In 1980, historian Mary J. Bratton introduced a previously unpublished narrative, titled "Fields's Observations: The Slave Narrative of a Nineteenth-Century Virginian," in The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography. 3. “Southern Spirits: Four Hundred Years of Drinking in the American South, With Recipes,” by Robert Moss, no date.