By Barney Blakeney
Former Charleston County Probate Court Judge Bernard Fielding March 8 at the Francis Marion Hotel in Charleston became the eighth recipient of the Center for Heirs Property Preservation’s ‘Commitment to Justice Award’. Fielding, a Charleston attorney, was described as “A remarkable humanitarian and standard bearer of justice for all”.
The Center for Heirs’ Property Preservation serves 15 counties: Allendale, Bamberg, Beaufort, Berkeley, Charleston, Clarendon, Colleton, Dorchester, Georgetown, Hampton, Horry, Jasper, Orangeburg, Sumter and Williamsburg. Among its missions is to; prevent the growth of heirs’ property (HP) by conducting education seminars on HP issues and resolution and forest management; provide the full array of legal services to help HP clients resolve their HP landownership issues to clear title to family land; and to provide sustainable forestry education, technical assistance and resources to HP and non-HP landowners who own a minimum of 10 forested acres.
In 1976, Fielding was appointed an associate probate judge in Charleston County, becoming the first African American to hold that position in the state. He again stepped into history as the first African American elected Charleston County Probate Judge in 1990. Probate courts undertake issues related to wills and testaments, decedents’ estates, trusts and conservatorships, including guardianships and adoptions.
Fielding, whose family owns one of the state’s largest and oldest Black-owned funeral home businesses, proudly notes he literally grew up in the family business. 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, MA 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.
During the 1960s and ’70s, Fielding served as general counsel for a variety of organizations, including the National Funeral Directors and Morticians Association. For more than fifty years he offered free services to the YWCA of Greater Charleston, which his grandmother co-founded. In 1969, he became the first black president of the Young Democrats of Charleston County. He has also taught extensively about the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and what he refers to as “the most powerful legislation,” the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
In 1976, with some backroom maneuvering, Fielding was appointed associate probate judge by Charleston County Council. Fielding served as associate probate judge for 14 years. In 1990, when the longtime probate judge for Charleston County chose not to seek re-election, Fielding decided to run for the seat. Fielding won the election, but his opponent appealed the results. When Fielding finally took office in 1991, he received just 60 percent of his predecessor’s salary—in fact, a $10,000 pay cut from his associate judge salary.
Fielding lost his bid for a second term four years later and went back to practicing law and helping out at the funeral home. Since 1984 he has been president and CEO of the business. And he became one of the center’s earliest and most ardent supporters. He calls the loss of heir’s property ‘larceny’ – land taken from Blacks throughout America’s history.
“That’s why the work of the center is so important. The taking of land is exploding all over again. People need help. They need the center’s help,” he said. In presenting the Commitment to Justice Award, the center responded, saying, “Thank you for your call to action, Judge Fielding. We will do our best to answer it – as you always have.”