The myth goes something like this: John Frank Baker was the first black man elected to Congress from Wayne County. He never made it to Washington, assassinated as he attempted to board a train north for his swearing-in.
Something about this didn’t sit right with me.
Wayne County was part of the so-called Black Second, the Congressional district that encompassed most of northeast North Carolina’s majority-black counties during Reconstruction and into the early 20th century. The history of African-American political activity in the district is extensive and well-documented, and I couldn’t recall having read of Baker. A Google search quickly refreshed my recollection. North Carolina voters sent four black Congressmen to Washington in the nineteenth century: John Adams Hyman of Warren County (1875-1877), James Edward O’Hara of Enfield (1883-1887), Henry Plummer Cheatham of Littleton (1889-1893), and George Henry White of Tarboro (1897-1901). No Baker.
As his headstone reveals, J. Frank Baker died 20 March 1897, the same month that George H. White was sworn into the 55th Congress, having defeated white Democratic incumbent Frederick A. Woodard of Wilson. [Sidenote: My junior high school was named for Woodard.] Clearly, Frank Baker was never elected to Congress. Why, then, was he killed?
To call newspapers of the era racist is to say “the sky is blue.” Articles about African-Americans were condescending and mocking at best, derogatory and vicious most times. Objectivity was not a hallmark of journalism in the late 19th century in general, but if their names appeared in the local paper, African-Americans could generally expect the worst. Notwithstanding this general bleak picture, when consumed with a grain of salt, early newspapers can be an invaluable source of otherwise unrecorded information about black Americans.
Frank Baker’s murder was covered in detail in the Goldsboro Headlight and the Weekly Argus, the rival newspapers operating in Wayne County at the time. Even before his death, however, his fiery advocacy seized the attention of the white community. This story was picked up by papers across the country:
Goldsboro Headlight, 5 November 1896.
I don’t know what Baker was speaking about or why his words touched off such a response — if, in fact, “150 negroes” actually took the streets like this. It is clear, though, that he was a powerful and polarizing figure in Wayne County. And four months later he was dead. A Raleigh newspaper broke the story:
Raleigh Daily Tribune, 24 March 1897.
The tone set, the Goldsboro papers picked up the report:
Assuming that the basic description of the murder is correct, we learn that Baker was not boarding a train when he was killed. Rather, he was minding customers at his grocery store, located near the railroad warehouse in Dudley. (The Headlight reported that the store belonged to Ira W. Hatch.) He was shot at fairly close range, but a room full of people saw nothing. Nonetheless, a wholly unbelievable statement attributed to his brother, W.B. Baker, placed the responsibility for Frank’s death on his own head. The reporter then emphasizes the “deadly hatred” that Baker engendered among his neighbors by insisting on legislation incorporating the town of Dudley. [Sidenote: don’t you have to love Bishop Henry McNeal Turner?]
Goldsboro Weekly Argus, 29 April 1897.
A month later, the wheels of justice were spinning uselessly, as newspapers indignantly proclaimed the innocence of two white men implicated — but not actually charged — in the crime. A week after W.B. Bowden’s good name was cleared, J. Will Grady was released when the “facts of his innocence were established.” On 27 May 1897, the Headlight tersely noted that the governor of North Carolina had offered a reward for the capture of Frank Baker’s killers. That’s the last I’ve found on the subject.
John Frank Baker was born about 1845. I don’t know much about his early life, but in 1879 he married Mary Ann Aldridge, daughter of J. Matthew and Catherine Boseman Aldridge, and likely first cousin to my great-great-grandfather John W. Aldridge. Frank Baker was not a Congressman. Nonetheless, he made his mark in Wayne County as an African-American politician capable of stirring the masses and willing to take on unpopular causes in an era in which even voicing opinions was a daring undertaking. He is not forgotten.
Photo from Baker article posted at http://www.wral.com/news/local/story/116365/.