Wednesday, February 28, 2024

Women’s History Month: Clara Byrd Baker, the pioneering educator

Clara Byrd Baker Elementary School opened in September, 1989. A portrait of the school’s namesake hangs near the entrance, greeting students and staff. (WYDaily/ Gabrielle Rente)

Clara Byrd Baker Elementary School bears the name of a woman ahead of her time.

That is the description Mary Ann Moxon, spokeswoman for Williamsburg League of Women Voters, gave of the school’s namesake, which opened in 1989. She went on to note that Baker was an inspirational woman who had many accomplishments during her lifetime.

Moxon has taken a special interest Baker, a former member of the league, and has conducted extensive research into her history.

Born June 22, 1886, Clara Byrd Baker, was an educator, suffragist, and civic leader in Williamsburg.

She received her education from the Hampton Institute (known today as Hampton University) and Virginia State College for Negroes (now known as Virginia State University near Petersburg), earning her bachelor’s degree in education in 1945.

However, Baker’s teaching career began much earlier in 1902 when she was only 16 years old.

“Her first teaching assignment was with a one-room schoolhouse in James City County, not far from where the elementary school in her name is,” Moxon said.

Baker faced immeasurable challenges in an educational environment where many of the teachers were white men. She stood out as a role model to her students and was noted for keeping an orderly school house. In 1920, she began teaching at the James City County Training School on Nicholson Street and remained there for 16 years.

The last 12 years of her career were spent teaching at Bruton Heights School.

Baker spent her entire career teaching during the era of racial segregation in Williamsburg.

Moxon said that, of all of Baker’s accomplishments, being a part of the League of Women Voters had to be her favorite.

Moxon added that Baker, whose nickname was “Smoje,” had been one of the first women in Williamsburg to register to vote in 1920 after the 19th Amendment, which granted women the right to vote, was ratified.

A few months later, Baker was the first woman to vote in Williamsburg.

During the 1960s, Baker helped found the Williamsburg League of Women Voters during a time when poll taxes were legal in the Jim Crow South.

“76-year-old Clara Byrd Baker, by then a retired teacher, was one of five black women present at a fateful meeting in 1962 where two dozen Williamsburg women applied to the state League to become a provisional League,” Moxon wrote in a 2020 article for league’s newsletter.

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But what made this accomplishment so monumental was that none of the other leagues in the state were integrated.

In 1963, Baker’s persistence paid off and Williamsburg became the first integrated local chapter in the Commonwealth, with Baker serving on the board as Voter Service Chair.

“It’s just like that famous phrase, ‘she persisted’,” Moxon said.

Baker was also a recognized as a leader at Williamsburg’s First Baptist Church.

She promoted integrated collaborations and fought for women’s involvement in public affairs. In 1967, Baker left Williamsburg and moved in with her daughter, who lived in Virginia Beach. There, she continued to be a fixture in the community until her death on Oct. 20, 1979.

According to Moxon, Baker was the recipient of numerous honors from local and regional organizations, including the 1960 Sojourner Truth Meritorious Service Award from the Tidewater Club of the National Association of Negro Business and Professional Women, and in 1975, the Susan B. Anthony Award from the Norfolk and Virginia Beach chapters of the League of Women Voters for her work supporting education and civic opportunities.

To this day, Baker’s spirit is still a part of the community, and her legacy continues to be celebrated.

In 2007, she was posthumously honored by the Virginia State Library as one of Virginia’s African American Trailblazers. In 2011, the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation paid tribute to her in ‘To Be Seen as an American,’ which recognized her as an African-American woman who “didn’t accept society’s limits on what they could accomplish.”


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