The son of Jesse and Fannie Baker, Wendell Harold Baker (1922-2013) played a crucial role in the civil rights movement in Walker County. His parents provided him with a first rate public education, and he graduated with honors from Samuel Walker Houston High School in 1939. Frustrated that he could not attend the local white college in his hometown due to racial segregation, Baker took advantage of a scholarship offer at Austin’s Samuel Huston College, where he pursued a science degree. At the same time, Baker also joined the college orchestra and choir, and traveled around the nation with a sextet that raised money for the college and recruited new students. Due to the draft, however, Baker was forced to delay his schooling in 1945, while he served in the segregated Army Medical Corps in the Pacific Theater of World War II.
Upon returning to the United States, Baker enrolled at Texas State University for Negroes during the fall of 1947. He quickly completed an undergraduate degree in chemistry and returned to Huntsville to teach physical science, biology, and physics at his alma mater, Samuel Walker Houston High School. Baker became famous in local circles for his rigorous teaching style and tireless devotion to his students. Although racial segregation was strictly enforced in Huntsville, Baker often challenged the discriminatory practices and inadequate funding of his school by negotiating with his white peers for science equipment, textbooks, and other supplies. As historian Bernadette Pruitt has shown, “Baker’s determination propelled a number of his students into math and science as career choices.”
In 1962, Mance Park, the former high school football coach turned Superintendent of Huntsville’s schools, fired Baker for building a new brick home on his family’s property, which was located near several white subdivisions. As a result of his dismissal, Baker was forced to find employment outside the local community. He ultimately secured a job at the Goodyear Tire Company in Beaumont, becoming the first African American professional within the company to win promotion to chemical engineer. Baker worked for Goodyear for twenty-two years, and the financial support the job provided enabled him to launch his career of activism back home in Walker County.
Beginning in 1963, Baker played a leading role in the African American campaigns for voting rights, school desegregation, and integration of public accommodations in his local community. He formed the Walker County Voters League and, with his wife Augusta, paid the poll taxes for dozens of African Americans to vote. In fact, the group defeated the racist Walker County Sheriff, Floyd Farris, before demanding additional reforms from the white establishment.
In time, Baker emerged as a key supporter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and its affiliated group Huntsville Action for Youth (HA-YOU), backing their efforts to desegregate the downtown business district in 1965. And, perhaps most importantly, Baker pushed for public school desegregation in both the Huntsville Independent School District and at Sam Houston State Teachers College. Baker’s own daughter, Pam, endured a painful year as she desegregated the 12th grade at Huntsville High School, and Baker personally pushed John Patrick, a young man who graduated with honors at Sam Houston High School, to become the first African American student to attend Sam Houston State Teachers College in 1964. Thus, Baker devoted his life and career to wiping out racial segregation in an effort to secure greater liberty and equality for his community.