Educator, community activist. Fields was born on August 13, 1888, in Charleston, the daughter of George Garvin and Rebecca Bellinger. She began attending school at age three at Miss Anna Eliza Izzard’s School, which was run by her cousin. She later attended the “public” Shaw school, named for the commander of the Fifty-fourth Massachusetts, Robert Gould Shaw. She attended high school and college at Claflin College, where she received her licentiate of instruction, which made her eligible to teach, and a diploma in domestic science.
Fields wanted to be a missionary, but her parents refused to permit it. She began teaching in the black schools of rural South Carolina in 1908. She taught at several one-and two-teacher schools and served as principal of the Miller Hill school. She married Robert Lucas Fields on April 29, 1914. The marriage produced two children. After Fields married, she moved to Charlotte, North Carolina, where her husband was employed as a bricklayer. The couple moved back to Charleston around the time of World War I, then moved to New York around 1923 after the employment situation for blacks in Charleston deteriorated. The family was back in Charleston by 1926, and Fields returned to full-time teaching. She retired in 1943.
Fields was active in many organizations that focused on improving conditions and opportunities for African Americans. She joined the City Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs in 1916 and was inspired by Mary Church Terrell’s speech on the “Modern Woman,” which emphasized service to the race, the community, and to elevating Negro womanhood. Later, fellow South Carolinian Mary McLeod Bethune offered Fields support and encouragement in club work. She joined the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and took part in the successful campaign in 1919 to employ only black teachers in black schools. She was also a member of the Charleston Interracial Committee that sought to secure public services for African Americans. Although she cooperated with whites on the committee, she was also part of a restless handful of well-educated black Charlestonians who pushed for improved recreational and educational facilities for the African American community. As a schoolteacher, Fields worked to get her students access to government services and to expose them to the world beyond their rural lives.
After her retirement, Fields remained active. She served two terms as president of the state Federation of Women’s Clubs and one term as statistician of the national federation. After her husband died, she worked for two years with the Marion Birnie Wilkinson orphanage for girls. She was instrumental in 1969 in helping to organize Charleston’s first public daycare center for the children of working mothers, after several young children died in house fires.
Fields received numerous awards from diverse organizations, including women’s groups and black fraternities and sororities. In 1972 she was named the state’s Outstanding Older Citizen by the South Carolina Commission on Aging. Fields died on July 30, 1987, at her home in Charleston and was buried in the Reserved Fellowship Association Cemetery.
Fields, Mamie Garvin, with Karen Fields. Lemon Swamp and Other Places: A Carolina Memoir. New York: Free Press, 1983.
Simms, Lois. Profiles of African American Females in the Low Country of South Carolina. Charleston, S.C.: Avery Research Center, 1992.