The case of Lena Baker, the only woman to be electrocuted in Georgia and, until Kelly Renee Gissendaler in 2015, the only woman executed there at all, is a prime example of Jim Crow justice. Granted, Baker was later issued a full, unconditional pardon (albeit decades too late), but she clearly should never have been executed in the first place.
Born in Cuthbert, Georgia on June 8, 1901, Baker came into the world with little chance of improving her lot. She was born into a hotbed of racial prejudice, Georgia being home to the town of Stonemountain where, allegedly, Confederate cavalry general Nathan Bedford Forrest played a decisive role in founding the Ku Klux Klan. ‘Kluckers’ loathed African-Americans in general and those who killed white people in particular. Lena Baker was black. Her alleged victim, her employer Ernest Knight, wasn’t.
Born into poverty, Baker did something to survive that inflamed local opinion even further. She took to ‘entertaining’ men for profit, including white ones. Again, Georgians of the time didn’t take kindly to prostitution. When that prostitution was performed by a black woman and she served white clients it made her even more unpopular. Not that Ernest Knight was well-liked in the community, either. He wasn’t, but he was white, Baker was black and when she undeniably killed him her fate was effectively sealed. It was as much Jim Crow’s hand on the switch as anybody else’s.
Knight had employed Baker as a maid (about as high a position as Baker was ever likely to achieve in life) and, according to Baker, kept her as a virtual prisoner and used her as a sex slave. Baker claimed her regularly threatened her life unless she gave in to his demands and especially if she ever tried to leave. After several altercations the situation finally became intolerable and both Knight and Baker would die as a result.
Their relationship had been troublesome from the start. Knight’s family abhorred his dalliance with a low-class black maid and sometime prostitute, which resulted in Baker receiving threats from his family and a vicious beating from his son. The fact that the son would openly admit severely beating her up, confident that the forces of law and order would be more interested in their coffee and donuts than dealing with his criminal act, says little for Georgia justice at that time. Baker’s family, in turn, were accused of threatening Knight. Hence, Knight took to carrying a pistol for his own protection that, ironically, sealed his fate.
On April 29, 1944 they had their final confrontation. According to Baker (who reported the killing to County Coroner J.A. Cox herself and surrendered without any trouble at all) Knight had yet again threatened her life, this time while waving a metal bar and threatening to use it. The pair struggled and, during the struggle, Baker relieved Knight of a pistol he usually carried and shot him in self-defence. She was arrested, charged with murder (which carried a mandatory death sentence in Georgia at the time) and held for trial.
Things were already very bad for her. They were about to get an awful lot worse. True to form for the time her jury was composed entirely of white men. Black people being unable to register to vote at that time (the unofficial consequences of trying to register often involved a beating, their homes being torched or worse) the jury was hardly composed of her peers. As unpopular as she already was among local whites, Georgia’s electric chair loomed large in her future. The trial judge was James ‘Two-Gun’ Worrill, so known because he always presided with two loaded pistols on the table in front of him. You’ve probably guessed by now that he was a business-like, stern, no-nonsense character whose word was literally law. He was also a typical Georgia judge of his time and so possessed all their typical prejudices. He didn’t like prostitutes or murderers, especially when they were black and their victims were white.
At her trial (such as it was) she repeated her case, alleging that Knight had enslaved her in all but name and had been, in effect, a serial rapist. But regardless of the facts of the case, Jim Crow justice moved fast. Her trial began on August 14, 1944. It also ended on August 14, 1944 having taken around two hours if you count the all-white, all-male jury taking only twenty minutes to render a verdict of guilty. The verdict of guilty meant a mandatory sentence of death, Worrill didn’t waste any time in passing one, either. Baker, now a condemned prisoner, languished awaiting the outcome of her appeal.
Which was where her situation, already almost hopeless, became even worse.
Her lawyer, W.L. Ferguson, hadn’t done much to defend her. He immediately did even less by filing the mandatory appeal and then dropping Baker as a client. She was now facing execution in a State legendary for its racial prejudice and without a lawyer to handle the appeal when it came to court. This sort of behaviour wasn’t unusual at that time. In North Carolina Goerge Stinney’s lawyer was barely noticeable at his trial and refused to file the single automatic appeal because, he said, Stinney’s family couldn’t afford this fee for fighting it. That lawyer was white and the voters he was hoping would put him into a high public office at the time of Stinney’s trial were, of course, white as well. Politics is a practical business and Stinney’s lawyer was certainly practically minded.
State Governor Ellis Arnall wasn’t much help, either. Declining to grant a pardon or to commute her sentence, all he did was grant a single 60-day reprieve so the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles could review her case. They wasted little time in reviewing it and deciding that all was perfectly well. Baker’s date was set for March 5, 1945 and she was shipped to Reidsville State Prison under heavy guard to await execution.
The fatal day dawned. Baker was taken from her cell, her head shaved to make a reliable contact with the electrode. Asked for her final statement she said this:
“What I done, I did in self-defense, or I would have been killed myself. Where I was I could not overcome it. God has forgiven me. I have nothing against anybody. 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.”
The switch was thrown.
Lena Baker was interred in an unmarked grave behind Mount Vernon Baptist Church in Cuthbert where, in 1998, the congregation paid for a small headstone to mark her grave. But that’s not quite where her story ends. Her family persistently tried to clear her name, aided by the Prison and Jail Project among others. They finally found the vindication they sought in 2005 when Baker’s great-nephew Roosevelt Curry formally requested a full and unconditional pardon which the Board of Pardons and Paroles (reflecting decades of lobbying and changing public attitudes) finally granted.
Had the Board acted in 1944 by reducing the charge to voluntary manslaughter, Lena Baker would have served up to 15 years instead of walking her last mile. But, to be fair, Georgia now is not the Georgia of 1944 and it would be unfair to portray all Georgians as unrepentant racists.
Lena Baker finally gained the vindication she deserved but didn’t get at the time. Hopefully her family will now be able to find some small measure of peace.