1898 Postmaster Lynching
In the early hours of February 22, 1898 a lynch mob set fire to the Lake City, South Carolina, post office and aimed their guns at the front door. Postmaster Frazier B. Baker and his family faced running through gunfire on their only escape route from the post office that doubled as their home. The mob shot Baker and his two-year-old daughter Julia dead. Shots injured his wife Lavinia, daughters Rosa and Cora, and son Lincoln, but daughters Sarah and Millie were not hit.
Baker’s July 1897 appointment as the first African-American postmaster in the predominately white community of Lake City sparked months of violent incidents against him. Baker’s post office mysteriously burned and shots were fired at him. The residents filed complaints about his performance as postmaster, but postal inspectors determined the allegations were unfounded.(1) The community’s racial prejudice boiled over into anger and bitter resentment of an African American in a prominent job—a not uncommon reaction to the changing times in the South.(2)
The tragic attack stirred media attention, public outcry, and charity efforts for the Baker family survivors.(3) When the state failed to prosecute the mob, the federal district attorney and postal inspectors took on investigating Frazier Baker’s murder. Securing witnesses proved to be the hardest challenge. Neighbors stayed tight-lipped, unwilling or scared to inform on each other. Arrests and charges were made on a total of thirteen men, two of whom offered to testify in return for protection and not be prosecuted.
For the gruesome killing of a federal employee, the accused were indicted on twenty-four counts including “a conspiracy to injure and oppress Frazier B. Baker in the free exercise” of his civil rights.(4) Twenty-three of the counts charged conspiracy, but the count for the destruction of the mail did not. The trial started on April 10, 1899 in the Federal District Court of Charleston, South Carolina. Three of the men were found not guilty, but the all-white jury remained deadlocked on a verdict for the other eight. The judge declared a mistrial and the federal prosecutors did not reopen the case.