Lena Baker was an African American maid in Cuthbert, Georgia, USA, who was unfairly convicted of killing her white rapist employer, Ernest Knight. In 1945, she was executed by electrocution, making her the only woman in Georgia’s history to have been put to death in this manner.
In 1944, Lena Baker began working for Ernest Knight, an elderly white man who owned a gristmill in Cuthbert. Tragically, Knight subjected Baker to sexual assault and held her in a form of near-slavery, confining her to his property for days at a time. Their “relationship” was met with disapproval from Knight’s son and the townspeople, leading to threats against Baker’s life. The situation reached a boiling point one night when an argument ensued between Baker and Knight.
During the heated altercation, Knight threatened Baker with an iron bar, leaving her fearing for her life. Desperate to escape the violent situation, Baker struggled with Knight over his pistol. In the struggle, she managed to fire a shot that proved fatal for Knight. Recognizing the danger she faced, Baker immediately reported the incident and claimed self-defense.
Baker’s trial commenced on August 14, 1944, and faced an all-white, all-male jury—a panel that hardly represented a fair and impartial assessment of the case. Despite her clear testimony of self-defense and the evident history of abuse and violence inflicted upon her, the jury rejected Baker’s plea and convicted her of capital murder. In Georgia, this charge carried an automatic death sentence, leaving Baker facing the electric chair.
Governor Ellis Arnall intervened and granted Baker a 60-day reprieve, allowing the Board of Pardons and Parole to review her case. Unfortunately, in January 1945, the board denied her clemency, sealing her fate. On February 23, 1945, Lena Baker was transferred to Georgia State Prison at Reidsville to await her execution.
In the face of impending death, Baker maintained her innocence and expressed her belief that she acted in self-defense. Her last words reflected her strong conscience and her faith in God. She said, “What I done, I did in self-defense, or I would have been killed myself. Where I was, I could not overcome it. God has forgiven me. I have nothing against anyone. I picked cotton for Mr. Pritchett, and he has been good to me. I am ready to go. I am one in the number. I am ready to meet my God.”
On March 5, 1945, Lena Baker was executed in Georgia’s electric chair. Her body was laid to rest in an unmarked grave behind Mount Vernon Baptist Church, a place where she had once sung in the choir. For six decades, her story remained shrouded in injustice and forgotten by many.
However, in 2005, Georgia granted Lena Baker a full and unconditional pardon, acknowledging the grave errors committed during her trial and the undeniable racial bias that tainted the legal proceedings. Her tragic story received wider recognition with the publication of a biography in 2001 and the subsequent release of the feature film “The Lena Baker Story” in 2008. These efforts aimed to shed light on the injustice endured by Baker and to ensure that her memory lives on as a reminder of the struggles for justice and equality that African Americans faced throughout history.
Today, Lena Baker’s photograph and her poignant last words are displayed in a museum at Georgia State Prison in Reidsville, serving as a solemn reminder of her plight and the enduring struggle for justice. Her story serves as a catalyst for reflection on the long road towards equality and the ongoing fight against racial injustice.