Lynching of Julia and Frazier Baker
Frazier Baker was appointed postmaster of Lake City in 1897, but local whites objected and undertook a campaign to force his removal. When these efforts failed to dislodge Baker a mob attacked his family, killing him and his daughter and wounding his wife and three other children. The incident and subsequent federal trial spurred national efforts to combat lynching.
As part of the distribution of "spoils" after the 1896 Presidential election, the McKinley administration appointed hundreds of blacks to postmasterships across the Black Belt. These recess appointments were resisted by local whites who resented any black officeholders, and feared that the increased political power that accompanied them would embolden black men to proposition white women.
A 40-year-old schoolteacher, Frazier B. Baker, was appointed postmaster of Lake City, South Carolina in 1897 and immediately encountered fierce opposition from local whites. While the surrounding Willamsburg county was 63% black, Lake City was, with fewer than a dozen black residents, overwhelmingly white. A boycott of the Lake City post office was initiated, and petitions calling for Baker's dismissal were circulated. One complaint was that Baker, a member of the Colored Farmers Alliance, had cut mail delivery from three times a day to just one after threats against his life were made. A postal inspector arrived to investigate the complaints and recommended that the post office be closed; in response, a white mob burned it down with the expectation that no one would rent space to relocate it while Baker remained postmaster. The government obtained space on the outskirts of town, however, and a lessening of racial tension led Baker to send for his family in February 1898.
Threats against Bakers life were made as whites remained hostile to his presence, and Baker communicated these threats to his superiors in Washington.
|Frazier Baker||42||M||Killed by gunfire|
|Lavinia Baker||F||Gunshot to arm|
|Rosa Baker||18||F||Arm broken by gunshot|
|Cora Baker||14||F||Shot in right hand|
|Lincoln Baker||11||M||Shot in abdomen/Broken arm|
|Julia Baker||1||F||Killed by gunfire|
At 0100 hours on 21 February 1898 the Baker family awoke to find their house (which also served as the post office) on fire. Frazier Baker attempted to put out the fire without success, and sent his son, Lincoln, to find help. As soon as Lincoln opened the door he was met with gunfire, and Baker pulled him back into the house. Baker cursed the mob and began to pray. As the fire grew, the heat intensified, and Baker turned to his wife, Lavinia, saying that they, "might as well die running as standing still," and started for the door. Before he could open the door a bullet struck and killed his two-year-old daughter, Julia, as she was being held in Lavinia's arms. Baker, realizing that his youngest daughter had been killed, threw open the door and was cut down in a hail of gunfire.
Lavinia, wounded by the same bullet that had killed her daughter, rallied her family to escape the burning house by running across the road to hide under shrubbery in an adjacent field. After waiting for the flames and gunfire to subside, Lavinia made her way to a neighbor's home and found one daughter waiting, and was later joined by the oldest, Rosa. Rosa had been shot through the right arm and fled the house with an unidentified armed white male in pursuit. Only Sarah (age 7) and Millie (age 5) escaped unscathed. The survivors remained in Lake City for three days, but received no medical treatment.
Unusually, the lynching was met with widespread condemnation. The lynching was defended by those who agreed with South Carolina Senator Benjamin Tillman's appraisal of the "proud people" of Lake City's refusal to receive "their mail from a nigger."
Ida B. Wells-Barnett denounced the lynching, and noted that the lynchers hadn't even bothered with the pretense of Baker having committed a crime. At a mass protest in Chicago she mocked the lynchers as southerners "whose proud boast is their chivalry toward womanhood." In order to present the resolutions passed at that meeting she met with President McKinley, arguing that Baker’s murder "was a federal matter, pure and simple. He died at his post of duty in defense of his country’s honor, as truly as did ever a soldier on the field of battle." McKinley assured her that an investigation was underway. While in Washington she also urged Congress to provide support to the survivors, but attempts were unable to overcome southern opposition.
While the lynching competed with the sinking of the USS Maine and the escalating tensions between the United States and Spain for the attention of the press, coverage of it was nevertheless widespread. In South Carolina, white newspapers, condemned the murder as "dastardly" and "revolting." The Williamsburg County Record called the lynching "the darkest blot upon South Carolina's history," but that the McKinley administration was also to blame for "thrusting venal negro henchmen into Southern offices of trust."
Investigation and trial
A grand jury was convened in Williamsburg County, but failed to return any indictments. The McKinley administration conducted a robust investigation of the murder, initially offering a $1,500 ($42,522 today) reward for the arrest and conviction of the mob. Despite resistance to testifying, prosecutors indicted 7 men on the charge of murdering Baker on 1 July 1898. Ultimately, thirteen men were indicted in U.S. Circuit Court charges of murder, conspiracy to commit murder, assault, and destruction of mail on 7 April 1899, after two men, Joseph P. Newham and Early P. Lee, turned state's evidence in exchange for their cases being dropped.
The trial was held in federal court from 10–22 April 1899, and the list of accused was as follows:
- Alonza Rogers
- Charles D. Joyner
- Edwin Rogers
- Ezra McKnight
- Henry Goodwin
- Henry Stokes
- Marion Clark
- Martin Ward
- Moultrie Epps
- Oscar Kelly
- W. A. Webster
The all-white jury was composed of businessmen from across the state. Newham, the prosecution's star witness, admitted to starting the fire and identified eight of the defendants as having participated in the murders. He expressed no remorse for the death of Baker and his daughter. Another witness, M. B. Springs, identified Henry Stokes as the ringleader; Springs was ostracized in Lake City and was ultimately placed under protection. An African-American witness, Henderson Williams, testified that he had seen armed white men at the post office on the night of the lynching; he was also retaliated against and fled to Florence after a white business partner threatened to "do [him] like they did Baker."
The jury deliberated for around 24 hours before declaring a mistrial because the jury deadlocked five to five. The case was never retried.
Following the mistrial, Lake City whites asked that the post office be reopened and mail service restored, an act that many African Americans derided as hypocritical.
Lavinia Baker and her surviving children remained in Charleston for several months after the verdict. Lillian Clayton Jewett met with Dr. Alonzo C. McClennan, the Charleston physician chairing a committee charged with the Bakers' welfare, and arranged a meeting with Lavinia. Lavinia agreed to accompany Jewett back to Boston, and she and her children, accompanied there by Jewett and Dr. Lucy Hughes Brown, a colleague of Dr. McClennan. Baker and Jewett had a falling out after several public appearances, with William Lloyd Garrison, Jr. spearheading fund-raising efforts to buy the Baker family a home near Boston.
The Bakers remained in Boston, but out of public life. The surviving Baker children fell victim to a tuberculosis epidemic, with all but Cora (d. 1942) dying from the disease by 1920. Her children dead, Lavina Baker returned to Florence County, where she lived until her death in Cartersville, South Carolina in 1947.
In 1918, the St. James AME Church was constructed on the site of the burned post office. In 1955 the church was burned down by suspected white supremacists angry at its minister's (Reverend J. A. DeLaine) civil rights activism on behalf of the NAACP. Racists had warned Delaine that he lived "where the black postmaster was shot to death many years ago."
In 2003 the general assembly passed a resolution in favor of a South Carolina historical marker on the tragedy. That marker was finally unveiled in October 2013 on South Church Street, the previous location of the post office and Baker's home.
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