On February 26, 1898, the Cleveland Gazette, a Black newspaper, reported on the lynching of Postmaster Frazier Baker and his infant daughter Julia of Lake City, South Carolina, who was burned out of his home and shot by a white mob incensed by his appointment to a federal post. The murder of Postmaster Baker galvanized the anti-lynching movement to seek federal intervention. Here is the article about the lynching…
“Lake City, South Carolina—George Washington’s birthday was ushered in in this section on Tuesday morning, at 1 o’clock with the most revolting crime ever perpetrated. Postmaster Baker, an Afro-American of this little town, and his family at the time stated above were burned out of their home, the postmaster and a babe in arms killed, his wife and three daughters shot and maimed for life, and his son wounded.
Mr. Baker was appointed postmaster three months ago. Lake City is a town of 500 inhabitants, and the Afro-American population in the vicinity is large. There was the usual prejudiced protest at his appointment. Three months ago as the postmaster was leaving the office at night in company with several men of our class, he was fired on from ambush. Since then he moved his family into a house in which he also established the post office. On a Tuesday night a group of white men who were hiding behind buildings and fences in the neighborhood, riddled the building with shot and rifle bullets. They shot high and no one was hurt. It was simply an effort to intimidate him. A short time before Senators Tillman and McLauren and Congressman Horton had asked the postmaster general to remove Mr. Baker because of his color and the request had been refused. The refusal was wired here. Mr. Baker did not remove his family and gave no evidence of being frightened. Being a government official he felt confident of protection from Washington.
At 1 o’clock Tuesday morning a torch was applied to the post office and house. Back, just within the line of light, were over a hundred white brutes—murderers—armed with pistols and shotguns. By the time the fire aroused the sleeping family, consisting of the postmaster, his wife, four daughters, a son and an infant at the breast, the crowd began firing into the building. A hundred bullet holes were made through the thin boarding and many found lodgment in members of the family within.
The postmaster was the first to reach the door and he fell dead just within the threshold, being shot in several places. The mother had the baby in her arms and reached the door over her husband’s body, when a bullet crashed through its skull, and it fell to the floor. She was shot in several places. Two of the girls had their arms broken close to the shoulders and will probably lose them. Another of the girls is fatally wounded. The boy was also shot.
Only two of the seven occupants of the house escaped with slight injuries. The bodies of Mr. Baker and the infant were cremated in the building. All mail matter was destroyed. A coroner’s jury was impaneled Tuesday evening. It visited the charred remains and adjourned until today. “Nothing was done to apprehend the infernal murderers. The whelps that shot almost to death some time ago Isaac H. Loftin, the Afro-American postmaster of Hogansville, Ga, are still at liberty—walking the streets of that town, with more freedom than the man they all but murdered. No effort to arrest and punish them has ever been or ever will be made by local, state or federal authorities. The same will be true in this case. This is a great country, a great government! Not even Spain respects it.”
Lavinia Baker’s testimony at trial
“I was in the building, with the baby in my arms. [Frazier] saw that I could not move, and he grabbed me, saying, “Come on, we might as well die running as standing.” At the door, the baby was shot: the baby was shot out of my arms. I said, “See, the baby’s dead.” Baker stepped back and saw his dead child; then he opened the door and was shot. I followed. Baker fell over and died, leaning against my lap.”
— Lavinia Baker
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 ($43,182 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:
Charles D. Joyner
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.
On 2 May 1898, a mass meeting was held at the Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, which passed a resolution condemning the attack and took a collection of $16 for the Baker family.
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 four children (William; Sarah; Lincoln, Cora) dying from the disease 1908-1920.Her last child Rosa Baker died 1942 Her children dead, Lavinia 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.
Source: Cleveland Gazette, 26 February 1898. Reprinted in Herbert Aptheker, ed., A Documentary History of the Negro People in the United States, 2, (The Citadel Press: New York, 1970)