Archive for March 5th, 2012

1945: Lena Baker

3 comments March 5th, 2012 Headsman

What I done, I did in self-defense, or I would have been killed myself. Where I was I could not overcome it.

-Lena Baker’s final statement

The state of Georgia has only ever electrocuted a single woman: African-American maid Lena Baker, put to death on this date in 1945 for murdering her abusive employer.

Baker was a sharecropper and a former sex worker hired to care for white mill owner Ernest Knight as he recuperated from a broken leg. This, as Baker’s biographer Lela Bond Phillips puts it, “developed into a sexual relationship.”

A twisted, sometimes-violent relationship.

Both Knight and Baker were alcoholics, and the Knight liked to keep his domestic in the gristmill for days on end.*

As an interracial liason, it was also entirely taboo; Knight’s son tried everything to separate his dad from this scandalous arrangement, including moving the family and beating up Baker.

Knight pere was even more committed to keeping her.

On the night of April 29-30, 1944, the elder Knight locked Baker up in the mill, after she’d attempted to flee him. Baker testified that after Knight got back from church — it was Sunday, after all — Baker tried to leave over Knight’s threats. The two fought over Knight’s pistol, and the fight ended when the pistol discharged through Knight’s head. As to how it went off or who pulled the trigger, Baker said she didn’t know.

Although the irascible, hard-drinking Knight wouldn’t have won any popularity contests among his white neighbors, this breach of the color line was prosecuted both vigorously and speedily: a one-day trial that August (the all-white, all-male jury goes without saying, right?) sufficed to send the maid to her death.**

She’s (obviously) the subject of the 2008 film Hope & Redemption: The Lena Baker Story.

* Virtual imprisonment of domestic labor: not a thing of the past.

** In 2005, the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles — which turned down Baker’s clemency application in early 1945 — issued a posthumous pardon suggesting that a non-death penalty manslaughter charge would have been the more appropriate conviction. Baker’s family and defenders read that as vindication; there’s a detailed NPR story about it here.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Georgia,Hanged,History,Milestones,Murder,Posthumous Exonerations,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Rape,Sex,USA,Women,Wrongful Executions

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