Sarah Haws Baker Fields

 

Biographical Database of Black Women Suffragists

Biographical Sketch of Sarah Haws Baker Fields, 1869-1944

By Anne M. Boylan, University of Delaware

Voting Rights Advocate, Businesswoman

In October, 1920, when Sarah (or Sallie) Baker Fields attempted to register to vote in Hampton, Virginia, the white registrar required her to wait while he registered a group of white women. He then asked her a series of obscure questions, none of which was asked of the white women, including a query on the "maximum and minimum number of section districts in the state of Virginia." The registrar told Mrs. Fields that she had failed to answer correctly, could not register, and should try again later. Her sister-in-law (likely Catherine Fields, a teacher) had the same experience. In a statement that she gave to the NAACP's field secretary, Addie Hunton, Sarah Fields described feeling humiliated at the treatment she had received. Other Black women at both the Hampton and nearby Phoebus registration sites described similar treatment when Addie Hunton interviewed them, with at least one feeling "too humiliated and angry to try again." Sarah Fields did try again, however, after her lawyer husband appealed the registrar's decision. She passed and was registered ahead of the 1920 elections.

Born in Richmond in 1869, Sarah Baker was one of five children of Samuel Baker and Courtney Taylor; only she and her younger siblings Mary Elizabeth Baker Hewlett and Harvey P. Baker survived to adulthood. On November 28, 1892 in New York City, she married George Washington Fields, who in 1890 had become the first Black graduate of the Cornell University Law School. The couple settled in Hampton, where each of them had attended the famed Hampton Institute and where George had come under the patronage of the school's white principal, Samuel Chapman Armstrong. Living at their home in Wine Street, Sarah followed her profession as a chiropodist (podiatrist) and sometime hairdresser while George practiced law. During the marriage, Sarah bore two children, a son who died in infancy and a daughter, Inez (1895-1978, later Scott), who became a lawyer, practicing alongside her father and after his death in her own law office. The 1910 census also listed a teenaged adopted son, Chester S. Fields, living with the family.

In 1896, Sarah and George Fields faced a major crisis when George suddenly, and permanently, lost his eyesight. In an autobiography in which he chronicled his remarkable life from birth—he was "born a slave in Hanover County, Virginia"—until his law school triumph, George credited Sarah's "constant help, encouragement and inspiration" for his ability to carry on with his career. When Sarah faced the white registrar in 1920, George put his legal skills to work for her and other Black women who sought to register to vote. In advance of her registration attempt, Sarah told Addie Hunton, she had "studied my application for which my husband had made a type written copy until I could not have failed." When the registrar nevertheless failed her on the registration test, it was George's appeal that led to her eventual success. Sarah's experience left him furious: "I was ready to die for the way she was treated," he told Hunton. Other Black women also received "2nd and 3rd tries" at registering after they protested.

Addie Hunton's investigation of barriers to Black women registering in Virginia was undertaken at the behest of Mary White Ovington, chair of the NAACP's board, after an inquiry from Channing H. Tobias, one of three YMCA employees overseeing its "colored work." Hunton spent two days in Hampton and Norfolk, interviewing approximately twenty Black women and six "leading men," including Sarah and George Fields. The women all related similar stories of being quizzed, at times for an hour or more, with irrelevant questions, leaving one woman "murderous over it all." But, as George Fields confirmed, most of the women feared retribution if they publicized their plight. Hunton concluded that of perhaps "1,000 to 1,200 colored women" eligible to register in the county, only fifty had been successful, most of them after being required to make second attempts.

In later years, Sarah Fields helped to found the Hampton Women's Forum, "a social and civic organization which taught people to use the ballot," practiced her profession, remained engaged in the Third Baptist Church, and along with her daughter Inez was active in community and civic affairs, including assistance to needy families during the 1930s Depression. George Fields died August 19, 1932, Sarah on December 26, 1944. Both were buried in Hampton's Elmerton Cemetery.

Sources: Genealogical information on the Baker and Fields families can be traced through the censuses, vital records, and city directories found on ancestry.com and familysearch.org. Cemetery records are on findagrave.com

The following obituaries contained significant biographical information:

"Mrs. S. B. Fields Dies in Hampton," Norfolk New Journal and Guide, December 30, 1944, p. B12.

"Bury Colored Lawyer Here This Afternoon," Newport News Daily Press, August 21, 1932, p. 15.

"Hold Funeral Services for Religious and Civic Leader," Chicago Defender, August 27, 1932, p. 4.

"Mrs. Inez Scott, Local Attorney, Dies" [with photo], Newport News Daily Press, August 11, 1978, p. 54.

Addie Hunton's 1920 correspondence with Mary White Ovington and handwritten notes on her conversations with Sarah and George Fields, among others, can be found in the NAACP Papers, Pt. 04: Voting Rights Campaigns, 1916-1950, African American Voting and Disfranchisement, October 21, 1920-October 31, 1920. A November 1920 typed summary of her report from Hampton and Phoebus is available on the Women and Social Movements in the United States, 1600-2000 website.

For George W. Fields's biography and a published version of both his autobiography and his law school thesis, see Kevin M. Clermont, The Indomitable George Washington Fields: From Slave to Attorney (n.p, © by Kevin M. Clermont, 2013)

For a full sketch of Inez Fields's life and career, consult Brittany N. Hayward, "Inez Catherine Fields Scott (1895-1978)," Dictionary of Virginia Biography, Library of Virginia (1998- ), published 2015; accessed online at https://www.lva.virginia.gov/public/dvb/bio.asp?b=Fields_Inez_Catherine

Important secondary sources include:

Brent Tarter, Marianne E. Julienne, and Barbara C. Batson, The Campaign for Woman Suffrage in Virginia (Mount Pleasant, SC: Arcadia Publishing, 2020). See Chapter 7 for coverage of Addie Hunton's investigation into the disfranchisement of Black women.

Suzanne Lebsock, "Woman Suffrage and White Supremacy: A Virginia Case Study," in Visible Women: New Essays on American Activism, ed. Nancy A. Hewitt and Suzanne Lebsock (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1993): 62-100

Martha S. Jones, Vanguard: How Black Women Broke Barriers, Won the Vote, and Insisted on Equality for All (New York: Vanguard, 2020)

Liette Gidlow, "The Sequel: The Fifteenth Amendment, the Nineteenth Amendment, and Southern Black Women's Struggle to Vote," Journal of the Gilded Age & Progressive Era, 17, no. 3 (July 2018): 433-49

 

Related Writings in Database

View works by

View works about

 

 

Back to List of Black Woman Suffragists
back to top