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.
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
B. Knight, a local gristmill owner, hired her to care for him
while he recovered from a broken leg, it must have, at first,
seemed like a windfall. Knight, a white man, was twenty-three
years Baker's senior. It was well known in Cuthbert that Knight
was heavy drinker and that he often carried a pistol strapped
to his shoulder. It wasn't long before a sexual relationship
developed between Knight and Baker. When she attempted to extricate
herself from this relationship, Knight locked her in his gristmill
for several days at a time, and as a nearby newspaper reported
after her execution, kept her there as his "slave woman."
At her trial,
Lena explained how Knight approached her house and forced her
to go with him on that Saturday evening of April 29. Baker had
been warned by the county sheriff to stay away from Knight or
that she was going to be thrown in jail; too, she was afraid
of physical abuse by Knight (and once even Knight's son had
given her a terrible beating with a warning to stay away from
his father). Therefore, as soon as she could, Baker gave Knight
the slip and spent the night sleeping in the woods near the
convict camp. On her way back into Cuthbert the next morning,
Knight cornered her again and this time took her to the mill
house and locked her in while he went to a "singing"
(a form of religious celebration in the South) with his son.
Lena soon became fed up with spending the sweltering day lying
on an old bed in the gristmill. When Knight returned, she informed
him that she was leaving. They, in Lena's words "tussled
over the pistol."
At her trial
when asked who pulled the trigger, she replied, "I don't
know." She also explained the Knight was brandishing an
iron bar that was used to secure the door to the gristmill and
that she was afraid for her life.
jurisdiction of Judge Charles William "Two Gun" Worrill,
who presided at court with two pistols on the bench, the trial
didn't last even a full court day, taking a little over four
hours. A former "lawman" out West, Worrill boasted
of gunfights with twelve men, seven of whom died. Later he was
appointed to the Georgia State Supreme Court by Governor Herman
Talmadge, who later became a vehemently segregationist senator.
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.
than one-half hour the jury came back with a guilty verdict
and Worrill sentenced Baker to death in Georgia's electric chair,
nicknamed "Old Sparky." Her lawyer immediately asked
for a new trial to be scheduled because "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." He then just as immediately resigned
as her lawyer. Later Lena was granted a sixty-day reprieve by
then Governor Arnall, but the Board of Pardons and Parole denied
clemency when they heard the case. Lena's execution date was
scheduled for March 5, 1945. 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.
to her death calmly. Her last words were, "What I done,
I did in self-defense, or I would have been killed myself ...
I am ready to meet my God." Witnesses stated that it took
six minutes and several shocks before the prison doctor pronounced
her dead. Although Ernest B. Knight's death had not made the
headlines in the Cuthbert Times, Lena's did. The paper
crassly reported, "Baker Burns."
the congregation of the church Lena attended as a young woman
raised $250 for a slab and marker for her grave. Her relatives,
now scattered from New Jersey to Florida, met this year, the
58th anniversary of her death, to place a wreath on her grave.
They are beginning to reconnect and plan a reunion on Mothers
Day, May 11. They have asked the state Pardons and Parole Board
to clear her of the crime. Perhaps if this happens, a healing
process can begin. The only response thus far from the Board
is that it usually does not grant pardons of this kind.
Lela Bond Phillips is an English professor at Andrew College
in Cuthbert, Georgia. The Lena Baker Story, Wings Press,
is available on amazon.com.
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