Only Woman Executed in Georgia’s Electric Chair
A question of justice
A woman executed in 1945 was mourned Sunday. Doubts about her case have not been laid to rest.
BY MIA TAYLOR
May 12, 2003
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Cuthbert – They gathered around a grave that for more than 50 years remained unmarked and nearly forgotten in the far corner of a parched and humble country cemetery.
There were a handful of relatives, but many in the crowd had never met the deceased woman. Still, nearly all had heard stories about Lena Baker, often told in a whisper because of the fear that filled Cuthbert’s black residents for decades after her execution.
Baker, a black housekeeper, killed her white employer in 1944 to free herself from what some say was virtual slavery. She was tried, convicted and given the maximum sentence — death — all in one day. The jury consisted of 12 white men.
When Baker, a mother of three, was put to death on March 5, 1945, at the state prison in Reidsville, she became the only woman ever executed in Georgia’s electric chair.
Sunday, more than 58 years later, people gathered here for a memorial service to mark Baker’s death. Her story has haunted many in this small town one hour south of Columbus. Fear led nearly all Baker’s family members and descendants to scatter in the months and years after her death.
But on Mother’s Day, a small group returned to Georgia for a day of singing, remembering and healing.
On this day, the whispering ended.
“The battle is not over until the victory is won,” Baker’s great-great nephew the Rev. Charles “Youngblood” McElveen intoned, as he stood graveside.
McElveen, a New Jersey resident, and Baker’s nephew, Roosevelt Curry, who lives in Georgia, are leading an effort to overturn her conviction. They are beginning to collect signatures on a petition in support of their cause.
“We didn’t come to start racial unrest, or division; we came to start a division between wrong and right,” said McElveen, a 44-year-old gospel singer who drove a bus full of friends and family from Newark, N.J., to Cuthbert on Saturday.
“This is my bloodline. This is my history,” he added. “If everyone sits back and does nothing, nothing gets done.”
The floorboards of the 130-year-old Mount Vernon Missionary Baptist Church, which has just eight pews on either side of its main aisle, shook Sunday during all the singing and clapping in Baker’s name.
Women in fancy hats and men in brightly colored suits jumped to their feet and shouted “Amen” as one speaker after another shared pieces of both Baker’s and the town’s story.
“This is a day that started in the 1900s when baby Lena was born,” said 67-year-old church Deacon Martin Embry. “I was 9 years old, and I remember when she was executed. I remember there wasn’t too much said about what went on then, even among blacks. . . . We’re in a different time now, and Sister Baker has laid out there a long time unrecognized.”
McElveen, her great-great-nephew, never got to know Baker. He too grew up hearing stories about her from elder family members. Later, as an adult, he obtained copies of her trial transcripts, read them and was horrified and moved by what he learned.
Baker fatally shot E.B. Knight, a white Cuthbert mill owner whom she was hired to nurse after he broke his leg.
During the trial, Baker testified that she shot Knight, 67, after he pulled a pistol and threatened to kill her if she tried to leave his mill.
“He . . . throwed his pistol on me, and we began to tussling, and I got the pistol away from him,” she testified.
“There was a piece of iron at the door, and he reached to get that iron, and I didn’t know but what he meant to hit me with it. . . . I believe he would have killed me, if I had not done what I did.”
She had a hearing before the State Board of Pardons and Paroles, which denied her plea for commutation of her sentence.
Journal-Constitution efforts to locate relatives of Knight on Sunday were unsuccessful.
John Cole Vodicka, director of an Americus-based inmate advocacy program known as the Prison and Jail Project, said Knight had kept Baker as his “virtual sex slave.” Vodicka has done much research on Baker’s case, interviewing many of Cuthbert’s elderly residents.
“If you read the transcript and have any understanding of black-white relations, black women were often subjected to the sexual whims of their white masters, their white bosses, or some white man who had control over their lives or their families’ lives,” he said.
In the end, he said Sunday, Baker “was in essence, lynched.”
In her last statement, moments before her death, Baker said, “What I done, I did in self-defense. . . . I have nothing against anyone. . . . I am ready to meet my God.”
Only one of Baker’s children is still alive. But she’s still so leery of Cuthbert, she chose not to attend Sunday’s services.
Twice Curry, Baker’s nephew, stood before the podium at Mount Vernon Missionary Baptist Church trying to speak about what had happened to his aunt. And twice he broke down in tears before completing more than a sentence. Eventually, he just gave up and walked back to his seat.
“Our family was mistreated,” he said later in the day. “We just want to make things right and clear her name.”