Frazier Baker family

Lavinia Baker is pictured here with her five surviving children after the lynching of her husband Frazier B. Baker. She moved the family to the Boston area following the 1898 lynching. Library of Congress.

Postmaster Frazier B. Baker refused to be intimidated.

In 1897, President William McKinley personally picked Baker, a black 42-year-old school teacher from Effingham, to be the postmaster of the nearby town Lake City. He proudly accepted.

Almost immediately after his appointment, Baker began receiving intimidating letters that told him it would be better if he did not to come to Lake City at all.

Still, Baker felt compelled to serve — even if it meant taking up this postmaster position in a majority-white town that would repeatedly and forcefully try to drive him out.

He was shot and wounded that summer when he refused to give into demands that he appoint a white deputy to conduct post office business. A North Carolina newspaper reported Baker then vowed he would die before he would resign or relinquish his office to a white man.

"He did not give in," Baker's great-niece Dr. Fostenia Baker said. "He was an educated man, and he believed that he should be able to serve his country as any other man."

Baker would not get that chance.

In January 1898, the post office where he was stationed was burned to the ground by townspeople who hoped it would drive Baker out for good. Instead, Baker and his family moved to the outskirts of Lake City and set up another post office at their home.

What happened next would make national and international headlines.

Around 1 a.m. on Feb. 22, an armed white mob approached Baker's house and the town's post office, which they set ablaze in a plot to lure him outside to his death. Then, the mob started shooting. 

"Come on, we might as well die running as standing," Baker reportedly told his wife, Lavinia, before he and his infant daughter, Julia, were shot and killed inside the burning house.

Baker's wife and their remaining five children barely escaped.

More than a year later, 11 white men were arraigned in federal court in Charleston, but a divided jury resulted in a mistrial. No one was charged in the killings.

The Williamsburg County Record at the time called the lynching "the darkest blot upon South Carolina's history" and a historical marker about the incident was installed in 2013.

Few South Carolinians today know Baker's story, but legislative efforts are under way to bring more attention to this tragic chapter of the state's history.

Lake City's only post office soon could bear Baker's name after U.S. Rep. James Clyburn, D-Columbia, introduced a federal bill that would rename the town's post office on West Main Street.

The effort has the backing of South Carolina's entire Washington delegation, all of whom are listed as co-sponsors. It has passed the House, and Clyburn expects it will pass in the Senate.

"I view part of my mission in the Congress to do what I can to help our country repair its faults, and this is a fault in need of repair," Clyburn said, invoking the writings of Alexis de Tocqueville.

An estimated 185 African Americans were lynched in South Carolina between 1877 and 1950, according to a 2017 report from the Equal Justice Initiative.

Lake City Mayor Lovith Anderson, Jr., who is also black, said Baker's story was hidden in plain sight for many years in the town that has a current population of about 6,700.

"We're in a small town, and you know that if you were to look up some of the names involved that some of those surnames are still in town," he said. "But it's not a story. It happened. The way to move forward is to admit that it has happened, and then we can start our healing process."

Fostenia Baker, now 77, said she sees renaming the post office as a way to make sure her great-uncle's legacy is never forgotten.

"This is going to be history, and it will forever be there," she said.

Baker's story appears in the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., and his name is also listed at the National Lynching Memorial in Montgomery, Ala.

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Reach Caitlin Byrd at 843-937-5590 and follow her on Twitter @MaryCaitlinByrd.

Political Reporter

Caitlin Byrd is a political reporter at The Post and Courier and author of the Palmetto Politics newsletter. Before moving to Charleston in 2016, her byline appeared in the Asheville Citizen-Times. To date, Byrd has won 17 awards for her work.