Lena Baker was a black woman who endured a horrendous ordeal during her life. Born in a small town in Georgia, Lena lived with her mother and three children. Accused of murdering her employer Ernest Knight, Lena Baker alleged that he verbally and physically abused her. Keeping her as a prisoner, Lena yearned for freedom and sought many avenues to obtain it. Ernest Knight was a white man, a local gristmill owner who was determined to keep Lena not only as an employee, but also as a sexual partner.
Lena came to work for Knight originally hired by his son to help with chores as he recovered from a broken leg. However, from Knight’s point of view she was there to take care of all his needs. In this paper you will get the chance to walk in Lena’s shoes. I will attempt to tell her story through magazine articles, books, newspaper articles and other research. You will see that in the end Lena’s life no matter how terrible it was, it wasn’t all in vain, and still today she is remembered for her last heartfelt words and calm disposition.
December 3, 2012
Justice for Lena
Lena Baker was a black woman born with three strikes against her. The first was that she was born in the south. The second was that she was born black. The third was that she was born poor. She was a black woman born in a small town in Georgia. She lived with her mother and three children and later moved five miles southwest of Cuthbert Georgia. Lena was no stranger to crime nor was she a stranger to hard work. Looking for work she acquired a job for a local gristmill owner named Ernest Knight. Knight needed a caregiver due to a broken leg. He needed help with household chores and meals, and Lena needed money. She procured the job with intentions of a business relationship only. However, Knight had other things in mind. Their relationship eventually became sexual on many occasions without Lena’s consent. The introduction of verbal and physical abuse soon followed. Threats against her safety as well as her children and mother were used to keep Lena at bay. She complied with Knight sexually but during this time (1940) relationships of that nature between blacks and whites were prohibited.
Making several escapes, Knight would find Lena, even going to her home during peak hours on numerous occasions to take her and do with her as pleased. Later during this forbidden relationship Ernest Knight’s son as well as the town learned of its meaning and taunted Lena for it, although Knight was the aggressor. Lena was eventually assaulted by Knight’s son, beaten so critically that she needed time to recover herself. Shortly afterwards she was jailed for the same relationship. Fed up with the abuse, Lena wanted desperately to return home, but Knight begged the differ. Imprisoned she knew she was fighting for her life, despite the threats she and Knight entered into battle over a gun which Knight was eventually shot. Panicked and afraid Lena fled the scene. She eventually turned herself in with hopes that all would work in her favor. Needless to say although the town knew of this relationship, no one said anything in Lena’s defense.
No one came to Lena’s rescue. There was no justice for Lena. A black woman accused of murdering a white man didn’t stand a chance no matter the circumstances. Lena soon went on trial. The trial convened on August 14, 1944, at the courthouse in Randolph County under the jurisdiction of Judge Charles William “Two Gun” Worrill, who presided at court with two pistols on the bench. In her testimony, Baker described how Knight locked her in the mill house while he went to a church singing. When he returned, he brought her something to eat but refused to let her leave, she said. When she insisted on going home, the two began to argue, and Knight brandished an iron bar that was used to lock the door. Baker said she feared for her life and attempted to push past Knight to leave. As she did, Knight was shot through the head. Baker testified that she walked immediately to the house of J. A. Cox (the county coroner and a man for whom she had done fieldwork) and told him that she had killed Ernest Knight, (Lela Phillips, Andrew College, Published 12/09/2005).
The jury consisted of twelve white men (not unusual for 1944), but many of the jurors were good friends who attended the same small churches, socialized with each other’s families at card parties, and shared morning coffee at a local cafe. (Justice Denied, THE MAGAZINE FOR THE WRONGLY ACCUSED, Issue 29 – Summer 2005, Page 8). Found guilty of murder in less than 6 hours, Lena received the death penalty as her sentence, earning Lena Baker a place in history as the first and only woman to be sentenced to death by electric chair in the state Georgia, (Netflix, lenabakerthemovie.com 2008). On March 5th 1945, after being held in a prison in Reidsville GA, she was executed but not before saying these last words calmly. “What I done, I did in self- defense, or I would have been killed myself. I am ready to meet my God.”
She was pronounced dead after six minutes and several shocks as her family mourned. (Albany Herald, Closure for The Baker Family, August 30th 2012). In 2005 Baker was granted a full and unconditional pardon by the State of Georgia, 60 years after her execution. The movie “The Lena Baker Story,” is about her life. Her nephew, Roosevelt Curry, received the papers pardoning Baker posthumously. The pardon stated the 1945 decision to deny her clemency and execute her was “a grievous error”. Baker was buried in the Vernon Missionary Baptist Church cemetery in Coleman where she is currently resting in peace. Unfortunately, neither her mother nor her children lived to see that one day there would be Justice for Lena. (Albany Herald, Closure for The Baker Family, August 30th 2012).
Phillips, Lela. “The New Georgia Encyclopedia, History and Archaeology.” The Lena Baker Case. Andrew College, Published 12/09/2005.
Phillips, Lela. “Justice Denied”: THE MAGAZINE OF THE WRONGLY ACCUSED. Issue 29- Summer 2005, Page 8.
Wilcox, Ralph. “Netflix, thelenabakermovie.com.” Hope and Redemption. 2008. Phillips, Bond Lela. “The Black Commentator.” Execution In A Small Town. Andrew College Cuthbert GA.
The Albany Herald, Closure For The Baker Family. Issue August 30th, 2012