There is a long history of wrongful convictions in the United States, most especially against blacks, stretching from the time when black men began to step their foot in the country as slaves, up to the 21st century.
Stories of wrongful executions of black people continue to saturate the modern mass media; some grim reminders of the prejudices against blacks in a world ill-dominated by whites.
Among the most gruesome convictions and execution of black people in the U.S., is the murder of a woman whose only crime was her determination to set herself free from the shackles of slavery. This woman is no other than Lena Baker.
Lena Baker (born June 8, 1900) was an African American maid in Cuthbert, Georgia, United States, who was wrongly convicted of the capital murder of Ernest B. Knight, her white employer, and executed by the state of Georgia on March 5, 1945.
Born in Randolph County, Georgia, to a poor family of sharecroppers who worked for a farmer named J. A. Cox chopping cotton, Baker was raised near Cuthbert, Georgia.
As a youth, Baker worked as a farm laborer. In addition to chopping cotton, she cleaned houses and took in laundry to help support her mother and her three children. At some point in her life, Baker began entertaining white men as a way of making extra money.
This came to the attention of the Randolph County sheriff and he had her arrested, as their clientele were white and interracial relationships were illegal in Georgia. She was sent to spend several months in a workhouse.
After her release, Baker was ostracised by the black community, and in 1941, Ernest B. Knight, a local gristmill owner, hired her to care for him while he recovered from a broken leg.
Knight, then 64, was well known in Cuthbert as a heavy drinker and a ‘pistol toter’ whose gun was often strapped to his shoulder. Their relationship would soon develop into a sexual one which sparked animosity in the town during the segregation era.
In an effort to break up the two, Knight’s oldest son, Eugene, persuaded his father to move to Tallahassee, Florida. Baker, however, went with him. Eugene then terribly beat up Baker, giving her a stern warning to stay away from his father. This she did, but Knight followed her back to Cuthbert.
When she attempted to release herself from the relationship, Knight locked her in his gristmill for several days at a time, keeping her there as his “slave woman”, and on the night of his death on April 30, 1944, threatened her with an iron bar.
When she tried to escape, a tussle ensued in which both tried to reach for Knight’s pistol. Baker managed to get hold of the pistol, which went off, hitting Knight in the head, killing him instantly.
Trial and Execution
Upon Knight’s death, Lena baker first reported the incident, to J. A. Cox, now the town coroner, stating that it was an act of defence. She later surrendered herself to the Sheriff.
Baker was charged with capital murder and stood trial on August 14, 1944, under the jurisdiction of Judge Charles William “Two Gun” Worrill, who, reportedly, presided at court with two pistols on the bench. The all-white male jury convicted her by the end of the afternoon, despite Baker’s plea of self-defense.
Her court-appointed counsel, W. L. Ferguson, filed an appeal but then dropped Baker as a client, leaving her with no counsel. After being declared guilty, and sentenced to death by electrocution in Georgia’s electric chair, nicknamed “Old Sparky”. The execution was scheduled for March 5, 1945.
Ellis Arnall, then governor of Gorgia, granted Baker a 60-day reprieve so that the Board of Pardons and Parole could review the case, but, in January 1945, the board denied Baker clemency when they heard the case. On February 23, 1945, she was transferred to the Reidsville State Prison where she spent time in the men’s section until few days to her execution.
On the day of her execution, Baker is reported to have gone to her death calmly. Her last words were, “What I done, I did in self-defence, or I would have been killed myself. Where I was I could not overcome it. God has forgiven me. I have nothing against anyone. I picked cotton for Mr. Pritchett, and he has been good to me. I am ready to go. I am one in the number. I am ready to meet my God. I have a very strong conscience.”
She was buried in Cuthbert in an unmarked grave which remained so for five decades. She was the only woman in Georgia to have been executed by electrocution.
Later Years and Posthumous Pardon
In 1996, author Lela Bond Phillips began investigating the all but forgotten story of Lena Baker. In 2001, the English professor at Andrew College published the biography titled ‘The Lena Baker Story’, which in 2008, was adapted into a feature film of the same name, starring Tichina Arnold in the leading role as Lena Baker.
In 1998, the congregation of the church― Mount Vernon Baptist Church―Lena attended as a young woman raised $250 for a slab and marker for her grave.
In 2003, descendants of Baker’s family began to mark the anniversary of her death and Mother’s Day at her graveside at Mount Vernon. That year, Roosevelt Curry, Baker’s grandnephew, requested that the state Pardons and Parole Board clear her of the crime. In 2005, the board granted Baker a full and unconditional pardon.
(By: Ejiofor Ekene Olaedo)
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SOURCES OF AUTHOR’S INFORMATION
Phillips, L. B. (2001). The Lena Baker Story. Atlanta: Wings Publishers.
Younge, Gary (2005, August 17). Pardon for maid executed in 1945. Retrieved July 3, 2020 from The Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2005/aug/17/usa.garyyounge1
Lohr, K. (n.d.) Ga. Woman Pardoned 60 Years After Her Execution. Retrieved July 5, 2020 from National Public Radio: https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=4818124