Wrongful Murder Conviction of a Black Maid 77 Years Ago
Still Reverberates Today
It was mid-1945, World War II was mercifully, finally coming to an end, the top song in the nation was “Ac-cent-tchu-ate The Positive” and it was a clear, 80 degree day when Lena Baker, a 44-year-old African American maid and mother, was about to become the first woman executed in Georgia for a murder she did not commit. The only difference between the execution and a lynching was that the public was not invited.
The situation unfolded in much the same way that it had for untold numbers of African Americans who had wrongfully but routinely been found guilty of crimes. It is a story of manumission in name only in the years after the Civil War as former slaves were liberated only to be again persecuted and often prosecuted and murdered through a cruel array of laws, known as Jim Crow laws or by vigilante groups that had the open support of local authorities or by tainted court proceedings.
After a four hour trial, an all white, male jury found Baker guilty of murdering her white employer. Baker, who had claimed self-defense, was executed on March 5, 1945, at Reidsville State Prison in the electric chair, ghoulishly referred to as “Old Sparky.” Baker was the first woman ever executed in Georgia and 60 years later, she was pardoned and her conviction was reversed. Since Baker’s execution, one other woman has been executed and a third is on death row.
Old Sparky is the nickname of the electric chairs in Arkansas, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Kentucky, Nebraska, New York, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Texas, Virginia, and West Virginia. Other states had equally macabre names for their electric chairs, like “Old Smokey,” in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Tennessee; “Gruesome Gertie,” the nickname given to Louisiana’s electric chair; and “Yellow Mama,” the nickname in Alabama. The Georgia electric chair was dismantled in 2001 when it was ruled unconstitutional and was replaced by lethal injections.
The fact that the jury was all white and reached the wrong verdict, still reverberates through American history from the 1931 case of the Scottsboro Boys, nine black youths who were accused of raping two white women, one of whom later recanted her testimony. Eight of the defendants were sentenced to death. To a jury that acquitted the murderers of the July 1955 execution of 14-year-old, African American Emmet Till to an all-white jury’s wrongful murder conviction of the African American professional boxer, Rubin “Hurricane” Carter. Carter served almost 20 years in prison before he was released following a petition of habeas corpus.
Racial discrimination in jury selection is specifically prohibited in the United States, although juries composed solely of one racial group are legal in the United States. While the racial composition of juries is not dictated by law, racial discrimination in the selection of jurors is specifically prohibited. Despite the law, southern states easily set up other ways than explicit legal bans to exclude black Americans from jury service.
In August 2005, the State Board of Pardons and Paroles pardoned Baker, acknowledging that she could have been charged with the lesser crime of voluntary manslaughter, which would have prevented the sentence of capital punishment.
The conviction of an innocent African American also was not unusual. A study by the University of Michigan showed that “innocent black people are about seven times more likely to be convicted of murder than innocent white people.”
The study showed that African-American prisoners who are convicted of murder are about 50 percent more likely to be innocent than other convicted murderers and that “African Americans imprisoned for murder are more likely to be innocent if they were convicted of killing white victims.”
There was little publicity about Baker’s trial or the execution. The Atlanta Constitution published a brief story on March 6, 1945, with the headline, “Georgia Chair Takes First Woman Victim,” noting “The first woman to die in Georgia’s electric chair was pronounced dead at 11:26 a.m. today. Lena Baker, a Negro woman, paid with her life for the slaying of E.B. Knight, a Cuthbert (Georgia) white man.”
The only other press coverage came on Oct. 12, 1944, with a story headlined, “Execution Stayed” which noted that, after a request from the Georgia Pardon and Parole Board, “Gov. Arnell has granted a 90-day stay of execution for Lena Baker, a Randolph County negress who was scheduled to die tomorrow.” After the stay had lapsed, Baker was executed.
Not only was Baker deprived of any future, her three children undoubtedly suffered and were permanently scarred by the murder of their mother. Nobody can say how the scars rippled through subsequent generations.
The verdict and the sentence were tantamount to a lynching, an altogether common occurrence in Georgia and other southern states. From 1882 to 1968, there were 4,743 lynchings in the U.S., according to records maintained by the NAACP. Other accounts, count slightly different numbers, but it’s impossible to know for certain how many lynchings occurred because there was no formal tracking. Many historians believe the true number is underreported.
The highest number of lynchings during that time period occurred in Mississippi, with 581 recorded. Georgia was second with 531, and Texas was third with 493. Black people were the primary victims of lynching: 3,446, or about 72 percent of the people lynched, were Black. But they weren’t the only victims of lynching. Some white people were lynched for helping Black people or for being anti-lynching. Immigrants from Mexico, China, Australia, and other countries were also lynched.
The daughter of sharecroppers, Baker was born June 8, 1900, in the small community of Cotton Hill, near Cuthbert, Ga. She lived a hard life during the Depression and later, in a world where African-Americans knew their place and did back breaking work for meager wages and whose freedoms were minimal, including the right to vote. In the 1940s, most African American voters in Georgia could not afford to pay poll taxes in order to vote and could not pass the required literacy tests. And they were always under the threat of lynchings, which continued through the middle of the 1900s.
Cuthbert, a town known for its sprawling cotton plantations, is in Randolph County in the southwestern portion of the state. As of 2019, the population was 3,520, less than half its peak population in 1910.
To support her three children, Baker worked as a maid, cleaning houses and doing laundry for Ernest B. Knight, a local gristmill owner. Knight had often locked Baker in the gristmill for days at a time while he violently mistreated her. On the night of April 29, 1944, Knight locked her in the mill for more than four hours and held an iron bar used to lock the mill door and threatened her if she tried to leave. Fearing for her life, she tried to leave and the two “tussled” over his pistol but the gun went off, killing Knight.
Her trial convened on Aug. 14, 1944, presided over by Judge Charles William “Two Gun” Worrill, so named because he kept two pistols on the bench. The jury found her guilty and Worrill sentenced Baker to death. While being escorted to her death, she reportedly said calmly, “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 anyone.”
Baker is buried in the cemetery at Mt. Vernon Baptist Church in Randolph County, where she once worshiped. In 1998 a group of church members finally marked her grave. She was the subject of a 2001 biography and a 2008 feature film, “The Lena Baker Story,” later re-titled “Hope and Redemption: The Lena Baker Story.”