Such is the story of Lena Baker, an African-American mother of three, who was electrocuted at the Georgia State Prison in Reidsville.
She was convicted for the fatal shooting of E. B. Knight, a white Cuthbert, Georgia mill operator she was hired to care for after he broke his leg. She was 44 and the only woman ever executed in Georgia’s electric chair. For Baker, a Black maid in the segregated south in the 1940’s, her story was a tough sell to a jury of 12 white men. And rumors that she was romantically involved with victim E. B. Knight did not help.
Her murder trial lasted just a day, without a single witness called by her court-appointed lawyer. She was convicted and sentenced to death. John Cole Vodicka, director of an Americus-based inmate advocacy program known as the Prison and Jail Project, said Knight had kept Ms. Baker as his "virtual sex slave." She was his paramour, she was his mistress, and, among other things, his drinking partner. 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 the lives of their families. "Here is one who resisted and paid the price.”
The undertaker who brought her body back to Cuthbert buried her in a grave that went unmarked for five decades, until the congregation of Mount Vernon Baptist Church raised $250 for a concrete slab and marker. Relatives are still trying to clear her name with the Georgia Board of Pardons and Parole.
Lena Baker, who had a sixth-grade education, stated publicly her innocence to the very end. “What I done, I did in self-defense," she said in her final statement. "I have nothing against anyone. I am ready to meet my God.”
A novel, The Lena Baker Story, authored by Lela Bond Phillips, chronicles her life. This book was the basis for a screenplay by actor/director Ralph Wilcox filmed in 2007 in Southwest Georgia. The film, also entitled "The Lena Baker Story," stars Tichina Arnold in the title role, Peter Coyote, Beverly Todd and Michael Rooker and is due for theatrical release in Spring 2009.
'The Lena Baker Story,' by Lela Bond Phillips