155 Years After Escaping Slavery, The Story of Martha Ann Fields Comes To The Stage
155 years ago, a woman enslaved in Hanover County gathered six of her children - including an infant - and took a dangerous journey toward freedom. The story of Martha Ann Fields was long hidden, but comes to life in a performance at the Hanover Tavern. VPM’s Catherine Komp has more for Virginia Currents.
Learn More: From Tragedy to Triumph: The Martha Ann Fields Story takes place at Hanover Tavern Thursday September 19-22, 2019. Read the book The Indomitable George Washington Fields by Cornell Law Professor Kevin Clermont, which includes Fields’ autobiography.
This story originally ran in September 2018 and has been updated to reflect the 2019 performances of the play.
Off Route 301, is the historic Hanover Tavern and Courthouse.
David Deal: This is the third oldest continuous use courthouse in America and dates to the 1730s.
David Deal is the executive director at the Hanover Tavern Foundation. He says when court convened once a month, the area was filled with people.
Deal: People would come just to get together, there would be all kinds of things going on on the courthouse green, gambling, drinking, partying, entertainment.
But for many, this was a site of tragedy as their children were taken from them and sold in the slave trade. Storyteller Valerie Davis looks at the giant oak trees on the courthouse green.
Valerie Davis: If the trees and the ground could talk, the first thing they would do is cough up blood.
This is where Martha Ann Fields saw three of her children sold. She was an enslaved cook at the Tavern and on the plantation. And says Davis, she was faithful, driven and wise.
Davis: She was a strong, tenacious, capable, phenomenal, spirited, loving wife, mother, sister.
Davis is a playwright and historical interpreter. She was doing a short presentation about enslaved workers on the plantation when she was given a book: The Indomitable George Washington Fields.
Davis: And I read it from cover to cover I think three times in a row.
The book is by Cornell law professor Kevin Clermont and it includes an important discovery - the autobiography of Martha Ann’s son, who detailed their years of enslavement and escape.
Deal: If it weren't for that book, we wouldn't know because there are no records here at the Tavern, you know from previous Tavern owners. We don't have anything like that talking about, you know things that went on or bookkeeping or anything. So we have no notes, so we're just lucky that you know that young man sat down and wrote what he remembered.
Using that primary material, Davis’s presentation grew from seven minutes to more than an hour. This month, she’s debuting a one-person play for two nights at Hanover Tavern.
Davis (as Martha Ann Fields): I was a cook for Miss Catherine and Master Philip and they used to always have folks coming over for dinner. They used to have a couple that come from Caroline County and their driver, his name was Washington Fields. I remember the first time I saw Washington, honey, my knees got weak. And the first time he spoke to me, I thought I was going to faint and all he said was “it sure is a hot day.”
An important part of the story, says Davis, is to show the loving relationship between Martha Ann and her husband, who was enslaved on a plantation four miles away.
Davis (as Martha Ann Fields): Washington was so proud of his children, every time he come by here he always had a gift for them. We always promised each other that we would take care of our children as best we could and then my daughter Louisa got sold away. And I stood there and I watch them put her on the auction block and I saw tears coming down her face and she looked at me, her momma. And there was nothing I could do. The next day Washington came by and he had a little doll for her that he had made and I had to tell him that she been sold away. So that promise that I made to him to keep our children safe, I couldn't keep it no more. Hmnm. That's all well and good, promise from God, that we will all going to be together. I'm holding onto that. That’s what I'm holding on to, that one day we’re going to be free, on this side of Heaven.
Davis: Unless they were part of a slave revolt, their stories are hidden, so you don't know about them. And you know, you could be standing in a historical place and not know that history, you know the history of the plantation owners, but the ones that were enslaved you just don't know their history. So this is phenomenal for me, it's humbling to be portraying her in a space where I know she actually was.
At one of Valerie Davis’s performances for fourth graders, she had an unexpected exchange. A woman came up afterwards shaking and crying. Her great, great grandmother was Martha Ann Fields.
Davis: And the hair on my arms stood up. And she said I feel like I just met my grandmama. She said you just told her story and I knew about it. She said I've even presented it, but the details that you had and the way that you presented it. She said I feel like I just met my great-great-grandmother. So it was it was humbling, extremely humbling. And at that moment I knew that that was what I was created to do. I knew that I've been called by my ancestors to do this, to tell the stories that they could not tell.
The family escaped to Fort Monroe, where Martha Ann Fields got work washing the uniforms of Union troops.
Davis: And that's how she made a living. They built their own house, her and her children knocked down trees, salvaged lumber and built a little house on Fort Monroe and then later on built a bigger one on Wine Street [in Hampton, VA]. So she was very self-sufficient and she was determined. She was determined.
Eventually, one by one, she was reunited with her family: her husband and her children taken from her at the Hanover Courthouse Green.
Davis: Can you imagine, can you imagine?
Davis’s play is titled From Tragedy to Triumph. She’ll embody Martha Ann from enslavement and escape to the post-war years when the Fields built their home and careers. George Washington was the first black student to graduate from Cornell Law School. And James Fields was the first black Commonwealth Attorney for Newport News.
Davis: The audience will see her grow from being an enslaved woman to being a free, regal woman, mother, matriarch of her family.
Valerie Davis says it’s not easy to play the role of Martha Ann Fields. But she says it’s necessary, so people remember history and learn from it.
Davis: And we see that history is repeating itself, when we see children torn from their parents in cages and their mama not being able to get to them. And people today, they make the statement, “this isn’t America.” No it is, this is America. Because two hundred years ago, this is exactly what America was doing. So I do this so that people know that history is repeating itself and it's a history that people don't want to talk about and we have to, we have to talk about it, we have to give these people a voice. Their stories have to be told, they have to be.
Davis (singing, as Martha Ann Fields):
Freedom over me.
Before I be a slave,
I’ll be dead in my grave
And go home with the Lord
And be free.
For Virginia Currents, I’m Catherine Komp, WCVE News.