Thursday, April 14, 2011

Lena Baker: Collateral damage victim without fighting an undeclared war

Lena Baker's arrest photo
Lena Baker. An African American woman whose name was hidden in the annals of Georgia’s history. You won’t see her name in history books or archived newspapers. On the day she was executed, World War ll was in progress. Major newspapers elected not to cover her trial and execution.

Lena Baker. She had the misfortune of being a Negro, an unnumbered victim of collateral damage, even though she never fought in an official war. Her war was private. Her war, like all African Americans living in the early South, was a civil rights war. Baker's conflict was a human war of trying to survive in an extreme state of segregation, racism and discrimination in the United States of America, her natural place of birth, June 8, 1901.

As a child Baker and her family worked as cotton pickers for a farmer named J. A. Cox. By age 20 Baker and a friend discovered they could earn some easy money by entertaining me. She and her friend turned to prostitution.

"This came to the attention of Randolph County Sheriff as their clientele were White and interracial relations were illegal in Georgia. The two were arrested and spend several months in a workhouse. On release she was ostracized by the Black community, leading her to become and alcoholic". (murdrpedia.org)

Roosevelt Curry, grand-nephew to Lena Baker, was quoted in a AJC.com story, June 2011: "The townspeople didn't talk about her and some members of the Black community and her family were scared to even mention her name. Relatives and members of the church, however, later care for it and placed a small marker there", Curry sad of Baker's unmarked grave. 

"What happened to her is historical and we don't people to forget. A lot of people have never heard of Lena Baker".
Baker was officially killed by the State of Georgia in 1945. Death by electrocution. She was a 43 years old mother of three. She was the first and last woman to die in the electric chair in Georgia. Her state sanctioned death was historical but was not treated as such.

It was author Lela Bond Phillips who came along and plucked Lena Baker out of obscurity. It took three years of intense research before she wrote Baker’s life story in a 120-page nonfiction book, titled The Lena Baker Story: Execution in A Small Town. Baker’s family moved from Cuthbert after the execution, which probably made it difficult for the author to write a larger, more detailed book.

“In 1996 while doing some research about 1940s Cuthbert, Georgia, I ran across some information about Lena Baker. At that time the ordeal and execution of Lena Baker was one of the best kept secrets in town. After reading the Superior Court Minutes of her trial, I knew that Lena needed a voice. Almost sixty years after her tragic death, I knew her story cried out to be told and I was going to tell it.

“Lena Baker had a least four strikes against her when she was born at the turn of the century in Randolph County, Georgia. She was from a small rural southern town; she was a woman; she was poor; and she was black. Lena was born in a former slave cabin, about five miles southwest of Cuthbert. At the age of forty-four in 1944, Lena had never known anything except hard work and the pangs of poverty and despair. She chopped cotton, cleaned houses, and took in laundry to help support her mother and her three children", Phillips wrote in Black Commentator, 2003.

In 1944 Baker was put on trial for killing a White man named Ernest B. Knight, owner of a local gristmill.  A gristmill is a mill for grinding grain. After breaking his leg Knight hired Baker to nurse him until his leg healed. Somewhere along the way a sexual liaison entered the picture. Consensual, interracial hanky-panky in the South was a serious no-no. However, it was accepted so as long it was done behind closed doors, where Black women and young girls were raped by White men, who did not fear prosecution even if they were caught in the act. Knight was at least 23 years older than 42-year-old Baker. Besides being older, Phillips says Knight was a heavy drinker. He was known to pack a gun strapped on his shoulder.

“When she attempted to extricate herself from this relationship, Knight locked her in his gristmill several days at a time, and as a nearby newspaper reported after her execution, kept her there as his ‘slave woman,’” writes Phillips.

 In the movie The Lena Baker Story: Execution in A Small Town, Baker managed to slip away, going home to see her mother and three children. Her escape did not last long. Knight went to her mother’s house and demanded that Baker go home with him. She resisted to no avail. That was on a Saturday, April 29, 1944. Phillips writes that the sheriff had warned Baker to stay away from Knight or she was going to jail. She was scared of Knight. He was very abusive. The sheriff did not consider that fact that old man Knight refused stay away from Baker.

In the Lena Baker story Tichina Arnold plays the role of Lena
In the movie Knight’s son severely beats Baker after discovering Baker and his father were sleeping with each other.  He warned her to stay away from his father. In the meanwhile, Knight was deemed blameless; his hands clean of this southern sin. After the beating at the hands of Knight’s son, Baker escaped again. This time she did not go home. She slept in the woods near a convict camp.  Again, her escape to freedom did not last long. Knight caught up with her the next morning when she tried to slip back into Cuthbert.

Phillips writes that Knight took her back the mill and went to a “singing” with his son. Phillips writes that a “singing” is a religious celebration in the South. Baker was locked in a hot room, spending the day on an old bed. Upon his return to the mill Baker informed Knight that she was leaving. In the movie Knight drew his pistol, pointing it at Baker. In a panic to save her own life she struggled with Knight to take the gun. It fired, hitting Knight,  fatally wounding him. Baker panicked and ran home. She was later captured and charged with murder.

At her trial 12 White men sat on the jury. Getting true justice was stacked against her. Baker did not have a chance in hell of getting a verdict of innocent. For Blacks in the South a trail was the roll of the one-sided dice. Judge William “Two Guns” Worrill, presided over the trial. It's said the judge came to court with two pistols that he sat on the bench, putting them on full display in the courtroom.

Baker’s trial lasted less than a full day. Four hours to be exact. In a half hour or less the verdict of guilty was delivered by the all-White male jury. Worrill sentenced Baker to death in the electric chair, better known as “Old Sparky."

Phillips writes that Baker’s lawyer asked that a new trial be scheduled. He said the verdict “was contrary to the evidence and without evidence to support it . . . and the verdict was contrary to law and the principles of justice and equity". Baker’s lawyer resigned. Governor Ellis Arnail granted Baker a 60-day reprieve. However, the Board of Pardons and Paroles denied her clemency when they heard the case. This left no hope for saving her life. March 5, 1945 was the scheduled day of her execution.

“On February 23 she was signed into one of the worst prisons in the United States, Reidsville State Prison, where she was housed in the men’s section until just a few days before her execution, when she was moved to a solitary cell just a few feet from the execution chamber itself", writes Phillips. 

Baker’s last words were, “What I done, I did in self-defense, or I would have been killed myself . . . I am already to meet my God".

It took six minutes and several shocks of electricity to kill Lena Baker. According to Phillips, the Cuthbert Times had a simple headline: “Baker Burns". For many years Baker's grave was unmarked, forgotten behind Mt. Vernon Baptist Church in Randolph County. The church eventually raised $250 in donations to buy a small marker for her  grave. On the 58th anniversary of her death a wreath was placed on her grave by family members, who had come together for the anniversary. They are planning a reunion May 11 on Mother’s Day.

Roosevelt Curry, great-nephew to Lena Baker hold the posthumous pardon. Standing behind him is 10-year-old Treonna McElveen.
On August 2005, the State Board of Pardons and Paroles posthumously pardoned Lena Baker, acknowledging that the 1945 decision to deny her clemency was a “grievous error." The Board said she should have been charged with the lesser crime of voluntary manslaughter, which would have eliminated her death sentence.

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