March 5, 2008

March 5 | Lena Baker

June 8, 1901 - March 5, 1945: Age 44

Lena Baker grew up in Georgia, where her family worked for a farmer chopping cotton. At 20 she discovered she could make money as a sex worker, but when the county sheriff discovered that some of her clientèle were white, she was arrested and sent to a workhouse for several months. When released, she found herself shut out by the black community.

By the time she was hired by Ernest Knight she was an alcoholic. He needed someone to take care of him after he had broken his leg in a fall. Eventually, however, the relationship included her trading sexual favours in return for alcohol.

The community was scandalized, and Knight's son tried to break them up. "She was going in and out there and drinking and some of the neighbors complained about it," he said. "I went to Lena and said, 'Lena, this has got to stop. I don't want to hurt you, don't want to have any trouble with you and you stay away from my Daddy. Don't come back to this house never no more'... Two days later, I drove by, and she was there. I took her and beat her until I just did leave life in her," he said.

Another one of Knight's sons persuaded his him to move to Florida, but Baker came with him. When confronted by the son and asked to leave, she did, but this time Knight followed her, and they both ended up back in small-town Georgia.

In April 1944 Knight showed up at her house, drunk, and demanded she come with him to his mill. She tried to evade the issue by asking for money for whiskey and then hiding from him, but he found her and forced him to come with him. She escaped and hid again, finding herself some whiskey and sleeping at a convict camp. The next morning she went to the mill, thinking that would be the last place he would be, but he was there. He confined her there for several hours, telling her that if she ever left him again he would kill her. They struggled, she managed to get hold of his pistol, and she killed him.

When tried for murder she pleaded self-defence, but given the public outrage at a black woman killing a white man it is not surprising that the all-white male jury convicted her in less than a day. She was sentenced to death in the electric chair. On entering the execution chamber, she sat calmly in the chair and said, "I have nothing against anyone. I'm ready to meet my God."

In 2005, at the request of her family, she was pardoned by the George Board of Pardons and Paroles, who commented that a verdict of manslaughter would have been more appropriate.

Source: Wikipedia, Crime Library

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