Tuesday, August 5, 2008


Lena Baker (1901-1945) was a maid and the only woman ever put to death in Georgia’s electric chair.
Baker was born to a poor family of sharecroppers, and as a child, she and her family chopped cotton for a farmer named J.A. Cox. At the age of 20, she and a friend decided to make money by entertaining gentlemen. Their clientele were white, and since interracial relationships were illegal at that time, this sparked attention from the Randolph County sheriff. While prostitution was illegal, the authorities would have likely ignored it had Baker’s clients been exclusively black. She and her friend were arrested and spent several months in a workhouse. Upon release, Baker was ostracized by the community, which lead her to become an alcoholic.
In 1941, Baker was hired by Ernest Knight to care for him after he had broken his leg. In Cuthbert, Georgia, Knight was considered brutal and abusive. He always had a pistol strapped to his chest and was a failed farmer who ran a gristmill. A relationship developed between them, and Knight would provide Baker with alcohol in return for sex. The whole town was talking about it, and Knight’s oldest son, E.C. persuaded him to move to Tallahassee, Florida, in an attempt to separate the pair, but Baker came with him. The son then gave Baker an ultimatum to leave:
“She was going in and out there and drinking and some of the neighbors complained about it,” he testified. “I went to Lena and said, ‘Lena, this has got to stop. I don’t want to hurt you, don’t want to have any trouble with you and you stay away from my Daddy. Don’t come back to this house never no more’.”
“Two days later, I drove by, and she was there. I took her and beat her until I just did leave life in her,” he said.
Baker left, but Knight followed her back to Cuthbert.
On the night of April 30, 1944, Baker told J.A. Cox, who was now the town coroner, that she had shot Knight. Cox told Baker to go to the sheriff, while he would go to the gristmill where Baker said Knight’s body was. She, instead, went home, and was picked up by the sheriff later that night. Although she was cooperative, he gave her two days to sleep off the effects of the alcohol in her system.
Baker then told her version of the events: Knight had come to her house drunk and asked her to come to the mill. She didn’t want to, but knew better than to refuse the drunk man. She tried to stall by asking for money to buy whiskey. He gave her money, and she went to the tavern, but it was closed. She waited there hoping Knight would leave her home. She returned and found him still there. She was forced to accompany him to the mill, but escaped and hid in some bushes. She bought some whiskey and went to sleep at a nearby convict camp.
The next morning, she decided to go to the mill. She thought this was the last place Knight would go. However, he was there and held her prisoner for several hours, even through hours of his absence. He returned and told Baker that he would kill her before she would ever leave again. A struggle began, but Baker managed to get Knight’s pistol, which went off, hitting him in the head and instantly killing him.
Knight was not liked in town, but because a white man had been killed by a black woman, this could not be tolerated by the segregationist town. Baker was charged with capital murder and went on trial August 14, 1944. The all-white male jury convicted her by the end of the afternoon, and her court-appointed counsel filed an appeal but then dropped Baker as a client.
Upon entering the execution chamber at the Georgia State Prison in Reidsyille, Lena Baker, who had a sixth-grade education and was only 44, stated publicly her innocence to the very end: “What I done, I did in self-defense. I have nothing against anyone. I am ready to meet my God.”
The undertaker who brought her body back to Cuthbert buried her in a grave that went unmarked for five decades, until the congregation of Mount Vernon Baptist Church, where Baker sang in the choir, raised $250 for a concrete slab and marker.
On May 5, 2005, Baker was pardoned posthumously for Knight’s murder following her family’s lobbying to have a pardon granted. The Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles ruled a “grievous error” occurred when Baker was denied clemency in 1945 and decided mercy was in order in such a case.
A biographical film, starring Tichina Arnold, chronicling the life of Lena Baker has been made, titled The Lena Baker Story.
Writer, director and producer Ralph Wilcox said, “The film is a cradle-to-grave story that offers a real perspective on Lena as opposed to just one incident. Race does play a part, but this story is really about a woman torn between a rock and a hard place.”

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