By Octavius Combs
Lena Baker born on June 8, 1900 to a poor, black family of sharecroppers and raised near Cuthbert, Georgia. Her family moved to the county seat when she was a child. As a youth Baker worked for a farmer as chopping cotton. It wasn’t until forty years later and after having three children, Lena Baker started to work for Ernest Knight who owned a gristmill. Once working for him after a while, Knight would hold Baker at his home for days at a time against her will. One day or night the two Knight, and Baker had an argument in which Knight threatened Baker’s life. She tried to escape and somewhere in the midst of the getaway Baker ended up shooting Ernest Wright and killed him.
Baker was charged with capital murder and stood trial on August 14, 1944 in the State of Georgia. The all-white male jury convicted her by the end of the afternoon. History note includes that because blacks had been disfranchised since the turn of the century in the South and could not vote, they were disqualified from jury service. After filing an appeal her counsel Ferguson dropped Baker as a client. On March 1945 on entering the execution chamber, Baker Sat in the electric chair and said, “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.” She later became known as Lena Baker, the only woman to have been executed in the state’s electric chair. NPR reported back in 2005 that “Ga. Woman pardoned 60 years after her Execution”. On Aug. 30 2005, Georgia authorities presented a proclamation to Baker’s descendants, including her grandnephew Roosevelt Curry, who led the drive to clear her name.
If you already knew of Lena Baker, I’m sure you probably saw the documentary that has been airing during the month of February on cable networks. Writer/Director Ralph Wilcox earned the rights to tell this story through the use of film. Wilcox had Tichina Arnold of TV’s “Everybody Hates Chris” play this role of the first and only woman sentenced and executed in Georgia’s electric chair for killing a white mill owner. Though several events behind research articles and the movie are somewhat different, the facts still remained the same. That Baker’s tale proves far more complex, involving racism, sexism, and inequality for blacks in the south during that time.
Lena Baker grave now designated by a simple concrete marker, sits in a far corner of the desolate graveyard behind Mt. Vernon Baptist Church on a country highway outside of Cuthbert, Georgia. Family members have since then cleaned up the graveyard to create a memorial to Lena Baker to erase the shame associated with her name for over 60 years.