Bernard R. Fielding Sr. stepped into history in 1990 as the first African American elected Charleston County Probate Judge. And as the first quarter of the 21st century contentiously grinds forward, the racial discrimination that marked the first quarter of the last century continues to scar the present day. At 84, Fielding mocks the racism that scarred his historic accomplishment. “I did it to improve the quality of our lives and the lives of our people. I’d do it again,” he says defiantly.
Fielding, whose family owns one of the state’s largest and oldest Black-owned funeral home businesses, grew up with adversity. The youngest of six children born to Julius Fielding and Sadie E. Gaillard Fielding, his parents died in 1938 when Fielding was six.
His father had selected a foster mother to take care of the children. The business he founded in 1912 was to be sold in order to support them. But instead, trustees of the will formed a corporation to keep the business in the family. Fielding’s sister Emily took over as president in 1940. Her brother Timothy became president after her death in 1975. Bernard, who became an attorney, succeeded Timothy in 1982.
Fielding proudly notes that he literally grew up in the family business.
The family lived on the upper floors of the three-story building his father purchased in 1916 that also housed the business. As a high school student at Avery Normal School, he delivered funeral notices to the local newspaper and helped with flowers during funerals.
At 14 he knew he wanted to be a funeral director. But he also had grown up in an environment that emphasized hard work and public service. In addition to working in the family business, Fielding chose to serve the community as a lawyer.
He graduated Hampton Institute in 1953, spent two years in the Army and while stationed in Boston, Mass. completed law school at Boston University in 1958. He recalls while a law student nearing graduation, he applied for a job as an insurance adjuster.
The white man who interviewed him eventually told Fielding the company wouldn’t hire a colored insurance adjuster. “I was about to graduate from one of the finest institutions in the country and I wasn’t good enough to be an insurance adjuster,” he related.
That was among many experiences that compelled Fielding to use his skills for the cause of civil rights. Fielding returned to South Carolina after graduating law school and worked with renowned civil rights attorney Matthew J. Perry. Fielding would follow Perry, who eventually was appointed the first African-American United States federal judge in South Carolina, as general counsel for the S.C. Conference of NAACP Branches.
In 1976 Fielding was appointed an associate probate judge in Charleston County becoming the first African American to hold that position in the state. At the time only about seven probate judges in the state were licensed attorneys. None of the state’s associate probate judges had law degrees. He held the position 14 years. Still, when he sought election in 1990 to become the state’s first African American probate judge his opponent, an insurance agent, challenged his victory through a lengthy court battle.
Fielding eventually prevailed and finally was installed in office in July of 1991. Four years later he was defeated in an attempt to win a second four-year term.
While in office Fielding was paid only 60 percent of the previous judge’s salary, which in fact was $10,000 less than he was paid as an associate probate judge. Fielding says his legacy in history is his work in civil rights and not so much as the first among his race to hold offices in probate court.
Fielding surmised this time in history saying, “Young people tend to think of discrimination in terms of slavery, but what I experienced took place in 1976 and in 1990 – so called ‘modern times’. We’ve come a long way and we have a long way yet to go.”