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Fields, C. Virginia 1946–

C. Virginia Fields 1946

Manhattan borough president

Jailed for a Week

Elected to City Council

A Crowded Democratic Primary

A New Era for Harlem

Sources

In 1997, C. Virginia Fields became the highest-ranking African American elected official in New York City when Manhattan voters chose her as their new borough president. A two-term veteran of the New York City Council, Fields was only the second African American woman in city history to win a council seat representing the citys most affluent, and most segregated borough. Since her election as Manhattan borough president, the name of this longtime Harlem community activist has been touted as a possible mayoral candidate for the 21st century.

Born in 1946 in Birmingham, Alabama, Fields is a social worker by training. She was the youngest of five children, and her seamstress mother strained to support the family after Fieldss father, a steelworker, died when she was twelve. Her mother was also active in the local Baptist church pastored by the Rev. Fred L. Shuttlesworth, an associate of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. during the civil rights struggles of the 1950s and early 1960s. Birmingham was also the site where four young African American girls died in a 1963 church bombing that was orchestrated by the Ku Klux Klan. Fieldss childhood home was also near Bethel Baptist Church, which was the site of several bombings during the civil rights era.

Jailed for a Week

The city of Birmingham reacted strongly to these terrorist acts, and federal troops were brought in to keep the peace. Fields was active in Birminghams civil-rights marches as a teenager, and even spent a week in jail in the aftermath of one march through the city that was led by Martin Luther King, Jr. After graduating from Tennessees Knoxville College in 1967, Fields earned a social work degree from Indiana University. In 1970, she moved to New York City. During the subsequent decade, she worked for a number of social-service agencies as a social worker, administrator, and supervisor.

Fields also became increasingly active in local community groups in Harlem, where she owned a home. She eventually developed an interest in citywide politics. Partly as a result of her chairing of Harlems Community Board 10 in the early 1980s, Fields became acquainted with some of the citys most influential African American political figures. David Dinkins, who served as president of Manhattan before becoming the citys first African American mayor, was a friend of Fields. She was also befriended by Percy Sutton, owner of the Apollo Theater and Manhattans first cable

At a Glance

Born Clara Virginia Clark, August 4, 1946, in Birmingham, AL; daughter of Peter (a steel-worker) and Lucille (a seamstress; maiden name, Chappell) Clark; married Henry Fields (a financial analyst), 1979 (divorced). Education: Knoxville College, B.A, 1967; Indiana University, M.S.W., 1969; graduate courses at New York University. Politics: Democrat.

Career: New York City-area career posts outside of politics include administrator with Childrens Aid Society, and supervisor of social services for the New York City Work Release Program; National Board of the YWCA, consultant; Political career began with election chair of Community Board 10, New York City, 198183; elected New York City council member representing District 9, Manhattan, 1989, re-elected, 1993; elected Manhattan borough president, 1997-. Also active in the Harlem Urban Development Corporation.

Member: New York Urban League, New York State Council of Black Elected Democrats, Black and Hispanic Caucus, Alpha Kappa Alpha.

Addresses: Office Municipal Building, 1 Centre St., Floor 19, NewYork, NY 100071602.

television system. Congressman Charles Rangel has also been cited as one of her mentors.

Elected to City Council

The Harlem Democratic Club championed Fields in her bid for a seat on the New York City Council in 1989. She won the election, and represented the district that comprised Harlem and part of the Upper West Side. Fieldss victory made her the first female African American to be elected as a council representative for Manhattan, the wealthiest and least integrated of New Yorks boroughs. Her election also coincided with the historic election of David Dinkins as mayor. She served on the land use and budget committees within the Council, and secured funds for housing restoration in Harlem.

During her second term on the council, Fields continued to work to improve public and social services for her Harlem constituency. Her positive reputation also helped to increase her base of support in the complicated network of New York City political alliances. As New York Times writer Jonathan P. Hicks noted, Fields honed an image of herself as a conciliator who works easily with just about any group of New Yorkersbusiness and labor, the poor and the middle class and all of the citys racial and ethnic groups.

A Crowded Democratic Primary

Fieldss fine political standing helped her to win crucial endorsements when she decided to run for Manhattan borough president in 1997, even though the preliminary race was congested with impressive contenders. What happens during a race for an office with little power but a lot of symbolism? inquired Village Voice writer James Bradley. You get a campaign shaped by longtime neighborhood and political rivalries. Other Democrats running for a spot on the 1997 ticket were fellow council members Adam Clayton Powell IV and Antonio Pagan. However, Fieldss main rival was state assemblywoman Deborah Glick.

Fieldss race against Glick, an openly gay former tenant activist and longtime Greenwich Village resident, was inadvertently assisted by some old political tensions dating back to the 1960s. One prominent Democratic Club split into two competing groups; one group supported Glicks candidacy, while the other gave its endorsement to Fields. Like Glick, Fields was able to raise a substantial sum of money for her candidancy, nearly $200,000. However, Glick was criticized for not campaigning in Harlem and for not including enough minorities on her campaign staff.

Fields also won support from outside her relatively strong political base in Harlem, no easy feat in the sometimes racially divided arena of New York City politics. Two former mayors, outgoing borough president Ruth Messinger, as well as notable Manhattan residents such as Gloria Steinem and Bella Abzug, endorsed Fields in her bid for the Manhattan borough presidency. She defeated Glick and other candidates in the September primary race by winning 42 percent of vote. At her victory celebration, Fields told her supporters that she had run a campaign dedicated to bringing people together across racial, religious, sexual-orientation lines, all of those things that tend to divide us unnecessarily, according to the New York Times.

A New Era for Harlem

When Fields won the November 1997 election, she became the first African American borough president in New York City since Dinkinss tenure as mayor. As the representative of a large constituency, Fields focused on school issues and housing. She created the Borough of Manhattan Parents Convention, and spoke out often on the need to improve hospital care for Manhattan residents, as well as creating a favorable climate for small businesses. Her name also became indelibly associated with a predicted turnaround for Harlem itself, a place whose former glory had faded greatly. As borough president, Fields was able to commission a study from the Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation that investigated the possibilities for restoring Harlems famous Frederick Douglass Boulevard.

The Columbia study, which was soon tagged the Fields Plan, was announced in late 1999, and involved a grant of 2.5 million in city funds to redevelop this once-grand boulevard. Fields called the boulevard the backbone of Harlem, according to the New York Timess Nina Siegal, and spoke of the rehabilitation of Frederick Douglass Boulevard as a crucial step in the citys next historic shift in gentrification. Its [Frederick Douglass Boulevards] redevelopment will send a powerful message that the second Harlem Renaissance has deep and permanent roots in the community, Fields said at the same press conference.

Sources

New York Times, September 10, 1997, p. Al; September 13, 1997, p. 27; August 14, 1999, p. B3; December 15, 1999, p. B22.

Village Voice, April 1, 1997, p. 27; September 9, 1997, p. 30; September 30, 1997, p. 35; December 28, 1999, p. 27.

Other

Additional information for this profile was provided by http://www.ci.nyc.ny.us

Carol Brennan

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