Lena Baker: A Historic Case of Racial Injustice

The Story of the Only Woman Ever Executed by the State of Georgia

Jennifer Escalona

Feb 19, 2009

http://www.suite101.com/content/lena-baker-a-historic-case-of-racial-injustice-a98040

 

Baker was a black housemaid and former prostitute convicted of killing her employer, white mill owner Ernest B. Knight. But as with many episodes in the Jim Crow south, history has proven that the story of Lena Baker's conviction and eventual execution had more to do with the nuances of race relations than serving justice.

Baker's early life was hardscrabble, even by the standards of the times. Born in 1900 in rural Randolph County, Georgia, she grew up in a former slave cabin. At age 16, she moved with her mother to a house on Morgan Street in Cuthbert, Randolph's county seat. Not long after, Baker had her first brush with the law. She and a neighbor were convicted of "running a lewd house," and sentenced to ten months of hard labor on a state farm.

By 1942, Baker still lived with her mother on Morgan Street, but by then was supporting three children, all listed in birth records as illegitimate and of unknown father. Until that year, Baker's source of income was taking in washing and sporadic domestic employment, but in what may have seemed like a stroke of luck, she was hired by Knight's sons to nurse the mill owner back to health after suffering a broken leg. According to Baker's court testimony, she "nursed him like [she] would a baby." Soon, the housemaid and the widower broke one of the taboos of the Jim Crow south and entered into a sexual relationship.

The relationship is well documented, with various witnesses at Baker's murder trial, including the county sheriff and Knight's own sons, testifying to the fact. One of Knight's sons even reported that he had beaten Baker in order to persuade her to discontinue the relationship. In Southerntown, his acclaimed 1935 case study of the mores of rural Southern towns, Yale Sociologist John Dollard found that relationships between white men and black women were common, and apparently, at least in Baker and Knight's case, consensual.

In her murder trial testimony, Baker recounted a relationship turned increasingly violent. She claimed Knight enslaved her, locking her in his mill house for days at a time. One the day of the murder, Knight locked Baker in his mill and went to church. Upon returning, Baker testified that he pulled a pistol on her and repeated a threat that he would kill her if she ever left him. On that day, though, Baker replied, "You will have to do it." A struggled ensued and somehow Baker wrestled the gun from Knight and shot him in the left ear, likely killing him instantly.

The trial that followed included a jury of the victim's peers - twelve white men who all knew Knight and Baker. Baker was convicted in less than half a day and, when her public defender quit her case, was never allowed an appeal on the grounds that she had failed to retain new counsel, even though she remained locked in jail. Baker was driven across the state to the Georgia State Prison at Reidsville in March of that next year and summarily put to death. One of her final acts was to deny one of Knight's sons his petition to watch her execution. Meanwhile, the Cuthbert paper reported the execution with the headline "Baker Burns."

In 2005, sixty years after her execution, Baker's Nephew Roosevelt Curry won the fight to issue Baker a posthumous pardon. According to the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles, the episode was a "grievous error," in Georgia's history.



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