Shortly before one o’clock on the morning of February 22, 1898, Frazier Baker, an African-American postmaster in the predominantly white hamlet of Lake City, South Carolina, awoke to discover a raging fire deliberately set in back of the small wooden structure that housed both his family and the town’s post office. Caught between the rising flames and a group of hostile and well-armed white men outside the building, Baker, his wife, and their six children sought unsuccessfully to douse the blaze. As they prepared to flee the post office, the mob opened fire. The postmaster was shot several times and collapsed, fatally wounded. The barrage of gunfire continued unabated, and the three eldest Baker children were all seriously injured before they could escape through the open door into the night. Baker’s wife Lavinia attempted to follow with her infant daughter Julia, but a bullet passed through her hand, killing the baby and tearing her from her mother’s arms. Struck in the leg by a second bullet, Lavinia Baker collapsed beside the burning building. The mob then dispersed as quietly as it had appeared. As flames consumed the wooden structure, local African Americans drawn by the gunfire offered sanctuary in their homes to the new widow and her five surviving children.
Mob at the Lake City Post Office--An Artist’s Portrayal,” reproduced from
the Boston Post, 10 August 1899.
For many, the word lynching conjures up images of victims killed
by hanging, but the term encompasses the taking of individual life by a
mob under a wide variety of extralegal circumstances. In addition
to the traditional noose, mobs riddled their victims with bullets, burned
them to death, and mutilated their bodies. The victims of “lynching
bees” in America were not always black; whites and Hispanics were
often lynched when accused of cattle rustling on the nation’s Southwestern
frontier in the nineteenth century, and white Tennesseans in 1916 went
so far as to hang a circus elephant named Mary from a railroad crane after
the mistreated animal had fatally trampled an inexperienced trainer (Daniel
52-54). But the overwhelming majority of lynching victims were African-American
males in the southern United States and the vast majority of lynch mob
participants were whites.
In the closing decade of the nineteenth century the nation experienced a meteoric rise in lynchings. In the peak years of racial violence, between 1889 and 1899, one person was lynched every other day (Williamson, Crucible 117-18). An increasing number of the victims were black males in the Deep South states, many of them accused by white mobs of having made sexual advances against white women. Pioneering African-American anti-lynching activists like Ida Wells-Barnett argued as early as 1892 that the widespread charges of rape were unfounded. Historians and other investigators of lynching have since confirmed her assertions, conclusively demonstrating that the alleged “epidemic of rape” did not in fact exist.
The timing of Frazier and Julia Baker’s deaths in 1898 places the Lake City lynching on the cusp between the peak in lynchings in the late-1880s and 1890s and the cementing of de jure segregation in the South. Four years of Civil War and a decade of Reconstruction had failed to remold the South along lines of racial equality. In the two decades following the “redemption” of the South by native white leadership, the door to equality wedged partially open by blacks and Union troops during Reconstruction was shut closed forcibly by a unified white South. Suffering under the stigma of regional cultural and political marginalization and entering a period of increasing economic difficulty, many frustrated whites found an outlet in reaction. They targeted their rage against blacks, believing they sought to abandon their traditionally subservient place in their quest for equality. In this climate of reaction, whites lynched thousands of African Americans.
The widely-held assumption in the white South and the nation at large at the turn of the century was that the national government would do nothing to stop the lynching of blacks or to punish mob participants. Despite anti-lynching sentiment among the Republican party’s rank and file, successive presidential administrations were unwilling to challenge the South on the issue, and Congress and the federal courts typically followed the executive lead. Many in the national government excused their inactivity by arguing variations on the theme of “federalism” -- that it was the role of the states to control the lawlessness of white lynch mobs -- but in so doing they conveniently overlooked the constitutional precedents set by Reconstruction. White northerners were convinced that any attempt by federal authorities to interfere in the sadistic customs of their white southern neighbors would subvert the ongoing process of sectional rapprochement (an altar on which the rights of African Americans were being sacrificed as the nineteenth century drew to a close).
The initial response to the lynching in Lake City was a telling exception to this pattern of unchecked violence. The brutality of the attack on the postmaster and his family elicited outraged protests from across the nation. Baker’s status as a federally appointed postmaster heightened the stakes in the eyes of a national government ordinarily unmoved by the lynching of blacks. The timing of the Baker lynching on the eve of war with Spain also catalyzed African-American protest that had remained diffuse in earlier lynchings of lesser-known victims. Although systematic disfranchisement would ultimately rob many African Americans of the ballot, even as late as the 1890s blacks still remained an important constituency for the national Republican Party (their clout within the “Party of Lincoln” was in fact responsible for Frazier Baker having originally secured a patronage appointment as postmaster of Lake City in 1897). President McKinley and his political advisers wanted to preserve a politically united homefront as tensions over Cuba ultimately led to a U.S. declaration of war against Spain later in the spring of 1898, and both white and black Americans rallied to the flag.
One of the most interesting aspects of the Baker case was the uncharacteristic way in which many southern whites outside of the immediate community of Lake City reacted to the lynching. Many white southerners at the turn of the century vigorously defended mob “justice.” They claimed that it was necessary to punish black men who they alleged raped white women, that the legal system was cumbersome and might not mete out a sentence severe enough, and that a trial would only compound the “outrage” already suffered by the female victims of these alleged assaults. In fact, the vast majority of lynchings had nothing to do with the crime of rape. Lynching was first and foremost about a racial majority violently policing the color line against blacks who whites deemed had stepped out of their “place” of enforced subservience and inferiority in political, economic, and social relations. But in spite of the facts, white defenders of lynching almost always returned to the explosive charge of rape. That this generalized accusation was groundless did little to diminish southern whites’ obsession with what they referred to as the “nameless crime.”
In their lurid imaginations, whites saw black men as sexual predators and would-be “despoilers” of white homes. In the case of Lake City, however, a black home had been despoiled by whites guilty of the murder of an infant girl and her father. And Baker, like so many other black lynching victims, had not been guilty of rape, not even accused of it. Local whites targeted him solely on the basis of his insistence on serving out his commission as a black postmaster in a largely white community. In the weeks preceding the fatal attack, Lake City whites had accused Frazier Baker of administrative incompetence and “ignorance,” had boycotted the post office, then burned it down at an earlier location. On two separate occasions federal post office investigators found no evidence to substantiate the townspeople’s claims; clearly what infuriated whites was Baker’s race, and his elevation to a position of authority in the town. The men who joined the mob in Lake City no doubt saw Frazier Baker as the embodiment of the stereotypical “uppity nigger” who failed to respect the etiquette of “knowing one’s place” in the post-Reconstruction South, an etiquette carefully-constructed and ruthlessly-enforced by whites. In having the temerity to accept the appointment as postmaster, they reasoned, Baker forfeited his right to live in a “white man’s country.”
But in the aftermath of the lynching many white southerners were troubled by their inability to saddle the postmaster with a “crime” that would “excuse” lynching according to the popular notions of the day. In a sense, whites were forced by circumstances to criticize the specific lynching in Lake City because it threatened to undermine the legitimacy they conferred on the entire practice of lynching. By arguing that Lake City was a “bad” lynching, white southerners tacitly endorsed mob activity under different circumstances. When many newspapers in the South accused the lynchers of “cowardice” for targeting an entire family in what some likened to a “turkey shoot,” they were ostensibly making an argument against lynching -- albeit one rooted in a gendered code of chivalry that allowed other lynchings to be seen by whites as a manly defense of female virtue. But the implicit corollary was that attacks carried out by the light of day directed against individual black men rather than entire families were perfectly acceptable.
The reluctance of most southern whites to condone the murders
of Frazier and Julia Baker presented a chink in the armor of white supremacy
through which early anti-lynching activists -- and ultimately the federal
government -- might attack lynching. For once Washington replaced
rhetorical equivocation with a forceful response. The reaction of
the federal government grew less out of moral outrage, however, than in
response to the political pressure skillfully applied by African Americans.
Anti-lynching crusader Ida Wells-Barnett and U.S. Representative George
White of North Carolina’s “Black Second” Congressional District, the last
black remaining in Congress two decades after the end of Reconstruction,
helped to mobilize grassroots protest aimed at forcing the government’s
hand. Blacks in South Carolina, throughout the South, and in northern
cities attended mass meetings protesting the lynching of the Bakers and
signed memorials demanding a federal effort to bring the guilty parties
members of the Baker family, reproduced from the Boston Post, 13
August 1899. (from left) Sarah, Lincoln, the widow Lavinia, Willie,
Cora, and Rosa Baker. With the financial assistance of William Lloyd
Garrison II, the son of the late abolitionist, and at the urging of many
concerned African Americans in Boston and the North, the surviving members
of the Baker family moved to Chelsea, Massachusetts late in 1899.
Over the next twenty years, four of the five children fell victim to tuberculosis,
a disease endemic among Boston’s less affluent black community. When
her last remaining child passed away in 1942, Lavinia Baker returned to
South Carolina. She died in 1947 in Florence County, less than twenty-five
miles away from Lake City.”
Fourteen months later, after an extensive investigation, federal prosecutors arraigned thirteen white men in federal court in Charleston, South Carolina on charges of conspiracy to deprive Frazier Baker of his civil rights. Since South Carolina’s legal system had failed to take any effective action to apprehend the Bakers’ lynchers, the federal government relied on a series of Congressional statutes collectively known as the Enforcement Acts to prosecute mob members for felonies committed pursuant to a conspiracy against Baker. The Enforcement Acts, passed during Reconstruction in 1870 and 1871, were intended to protect African Americans’ civil rights as guaranteed by the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments from infringement by southern whites.
After a federal grand jury ruled there was sufficient evidence to try the accused lynchers, however, the government’s attorneys found their best efforts stymied by the resolve of the white Lake City community to protect its own. In the subsequent trial, friends and relatives of the accused perjured themselves repeatedly to provide alibis for the men. As closing arguments began, the U.S. District Court proceedings in Charleston degenerated into a grand political circus. Lawyers for the thirteen white defendants largely ignored the government’s well-constructed case and even glossed over the evidence they had presented in rebuttal; riddled with internal contradictions, it had been equally damning. Instead, they resorted to a naked appeal to the racist sensibilities of an all-white jury. (Three years after South Carolina’s Constitutional Convention of 1895 stripped the state’s African Americans of the ballot, blacks were already being systematically excluded from juries.) White supremacy, the lawyers argued, demanded acquittal of the defendants.
The government lawyers responded to the legal farce with lily-white protestations of their own. In effect, they agreed with the defendants that the Republicans’ appointment of Baker to the postmastership of Lake City had been a grievous error, but they insisted mob rule was an affront to the civilization whites professed to be defending. On that basis, and with the overwhelming weight of the evidence, the jurors should convict those accused of lynching Frazier and Julia Baker. In his final appeal to the twelve impaneled white men, the chief prosecutor spoke eloquently of “outraged justice.” Without true justice -- as opposed to the grisly sentences meted out by bloodthirsty lynch mobs -- southerners might just as well “shut the school houses, burn the books, tear down the churches and admit to the world that Anglo-Saxon civilization is a failure” (Charleston News and Courier, 21 April 1899).
After twenty-two hours of deliberation, an irreconcilably divided jury produced a mistrial; evidence suggested approximately half of the jurors had voted to convict the white men for the lynching of the Bakers. The federal government never resumed prosecution of the case. The proceedings in Charleston had been relatively unusual in that whites were so rarely brought to trial at all for the crime of lynching. It was not uncommon for coroner’s juries in the South to conduct cursory investigations into lynchings, but the inquests, often composed of participants in the mob itself, were apt to be open mockeries of justice. One jury investigating a lynching reputedly rendered the solemn verdict: “the deceased came to his death by swinging in the air”; another, “the deceased came to his death by taking too great a bite of hemp rope” (Sinclair 250-51).
Within this context, the willingness of a federal grand jury made up of white southerners to indict the lynchers and the refusal of a second jury to grant outright acquittals in the trial might be considered evidence of progress. But any optimism in this respect should be tempered by the knowledge that the federal government rarely took such an aggressive stance against lynching following the Baker case, and the turn of the century saw ongoing lynchings joined by an even more deadly phenomenon: “race riots” in Phoenix, South Carolina, Wilmington, North Carolina, New Orleans, Atlanta, and other cities. These explosions of violence left scores of African Americans dead and were less “riots” than massacres, clearly illuminating the extent to which some southern whites were willing to go to perpetuate white supremacy.
From the time of the attack on the Bakers in 1898, African-American anti-lynching advocates in Boston considered asking the surviving family members to leave Charleston -- where they had lived while awaiting the outcome of the trial -- to settle in the North. In late July of 1899, a young white woman named Lillian Clayton Jewett electrified a Boston meeting of African Americans when she offered to lead personally a campaign to "rescue" the Bakers, who were reportedly in dire financial straits. Jewett's appearance touched off an acrimonious debate between those black Bostonians who supported her efforts and others who resented the sudden intrusion of an unfamiliar white woman into what had been an exclusively African-American effort. Against the wishes of many of the city's black elite, Jewett secretly boarded a train heading south. In Charleston she convinced the Bakers of her good intentions, and the family agreed to accompany her. On the trip north Jewett rested in a sleeping car, while in the day coach the Bakers struggled to make out the charred ruins of the Lake City post office when the train passed within yards of the site of the lynching. Jewett's African-American supporters in the North likened her to Harriet Beecher Stowe, an earlier white heroine of the anti-slavery movement. By bringing the Bakers out of the benighted South, they eulogized, she had performed veritable "underground railroad work" (Hux 20). Jewett appeared with the Bakers before large gatherings in Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and Maine. Holding up the family's suffering as an object lesson against lynching, she strongly denounced President McKinley for his failure to take a public stand against mob rule in the South. Audiences responded enthusiastically to Jewett's political message, but they were less eager to meet her request for donations to provide for the Bakers' future. When contributions continued to drop off in subsequent meetings, Jewett's crusade quickly faltered. In the South, white critics following media coverage of Jewett charged her with exploiting the Bakers' misery for profit. A black nurse who had accompanied the family from Charleston voiced similar concerns: "The Bakers had not come North for exhibition purposes . . . they are not to be treated like monkeys in a cage and trotted around from place to place" (Boston Post, 8 August 1899). Whatever Jewett's true intentions, the Bakers soon realized that the controversy surrounding the young white woman was harming their chances of obtaining economic support. In September Lavinia Baker made a direct appeal to the public for support. Interpreting the plea as a rebuff, Jewett declared herself finished with the family. William Lloyd Garrison II, the son of the late abolitionist, raised twelve hundred dollars to provide a home for the Bakers near Boston. Glad to escape the notoriety that had followed them for nearly two years, the survivors of the Lake City lynching finally retired from the nation's newspaper headlines. During the next twenty years, four of the Baker children fell victim to tuberculosis, a disease endemic among Boston's poorer African Americans. When her last child passed away in 1942, Lavinia Baker returned to South Carolina. She died in 1947 in Florence County, less than twenty-five miles away from Lake City.
Where discussed at all, the Lake City case has typically appeared as little more than a historical footnote in most accounts of South Carolina history. As scholar Joel Williamson noted recently, such historical amnesia is not unusual where lynching is concerned. “Arguably, southern whites lynching blacks in the turn-of-the-century South while northern whites looked on is as close as America has ever come to experiencing our own holocaust.” (Williamson, “Wounds Not Scars” 1232) And just as there are some who continue to deny the irrefutable evidence of Nazi genocide, the extent of lynching in America’s past is a subject on which few care to dwell. Ours is a culture, Williamson writes, that is “amazingly effective in erasing some parts of its history and creating others” (1244).
For a brief moment in 1898, the assurance that white men could lynch with total impunity, provided their victims were black, had been threatened by organized African-American protest and a federal government prodded into action by the intensity of that protest. The flame flickered and died, however, as southern whites closed ranks to protect their own. Ultimately, the inability of the federal government to bring the Bakers’ lynchers to justice reaffirmed its lack of political willpower where enforcement of the Reconstruction amendments to the Constitution was concerned. After the miscarriage of justice in the Charleston trial, the national government slipped back into its former complacency. African Americans and a courageous minority of whites continued to wage a spirited public campaign against lynching, but in the ensuing decades they were all too often voices in the wilderness. In the aftermath of the lynching of Postmaster Frazier Baker and his daughter Julia, the pattern of color-conscious justice -- or injustice -- remained unchanged.
David C. Carter, Assistant Professor of History, Auburn University, Alabama
Brundage, Fitzhugh. Lynching in the New South: Georgia and Virginia, 1880-1930. Urbana, Ill.: University of Illinois Press, 1993.
Brundage, Fitzhugh, ed. Under Sentence of Death: Lynching in the South. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997.
Carter, David. “Outraged Justice. The Lynching of Postmaster Frazier Baker in Lake City, South Carolina, 1897-1899.” Undergraduate History Honors Thesis, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 1992.
Daniel, Pete. Standing at the Crossroads: Southern Life in the Twentieth Century. New York: Hill and Wang, 1986.
Duster, Alfreda M., ed. Crusade for Justice: The Autobiography of Ida B. Wells. Chicago: University of Chicago press, 1970.
Finnegan, Terence. "'At the Hands of Parties Unknown: Lynching in Mississippi and South Carolina, 1881-1940." Ph.D. Dissertation, University of Illinois, 1993.
Finnegan, Terence. "Lynching and Political Power in Mississippi and South Carolina." In Fitzhugh Brundage, ed. Under Sentence of Death: Lynching in the South. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997, 189-218.
Gatewood, Jr., Willard B. Black Americans and the White Man’s Burden, 1898-1903. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1975.
Hall, Jacquelyn Dowd. Revolt Against Chivalry: Jessie Daniel Ames and the Women’s Campaign Against Lynching, rev. ed. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993.
Hux, Roger K. “Lillian Clayton Jewett and the Rescue of the Baker Family, 1899-1900.” Historical Journal of Massachusetts (Winter 1991): 13-23.
Morris, Samuel Calhoun. A Tale That is Told: Stories, Incidents, Sketches of Carolina Life. Privately printed, 1954.
Newby, I.A. Black Carolinians: A History of Blacks in South Carolina from 1895 to 1968. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1973.
Sinclair, William A. The Aftermath of Slavery: A study of the Condition and Environment of the American Negro. Boston: Small, Maynard, and Co., 1905.
Tindall, George Brown. South Carolina Negroes: 1877-1900. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1952.
Williamson, Joel. The Crucible of Race: Black-White Relations in the American South Since Emancipation. New York: Oxford University Press, 1984.
Williamson, Joel. “Wounds Not Scars: Lynching, the National
Conscience, and the American Historian.” Journal of American History
83, 4 (March, 1997): 1221-53.
last updated 5/20/03
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