In 1951, a group of Black men who came to be known as the “Martinsville Seven” were tried by a white jury and sentenced to death for their supposed role in the gang rape of a 32-year-old white woman named Ruby Stroud Floyd. Seventy years later, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam has granted posthumous pardons to all seven of the men, saying they were treated unfairly by the legal system and didn’t deserve to be executed by the state.
Denise Lavoie of the Associated Press reported that Gov. Northam announced the pardons following a meeting with a group of the men’s family members, descendants and advocates working to clear their names.
“The case attracted pleas for mercy from around the world and in recent years has been denounced as an example of racial disparity in the use of the death penalty,” Lavoie said. “Cries and sobs could be heard from some of the descendants after Northam’s announcement.”
The “Martinsville Seven” story began on Jan. 8, 1949, when Floyd visited a predominantly Black neighborhood in Martinsville, Virginia, to pick up the money she was owed for clothing she had sold. While she was in the area, she was attacked by a group of men and raped — but the details of who was actually involved in the attack were not completely clear to investigators.
Despite uncertainties in their investigation, seven Black men (Francis DeSales Grayson; Booker T. Millner; Frank Hairston Jr.; Howard Lee Hairston; James Luther Hairston; Joe Henry Hampton; and John Clabon Taylor) in their late teens or early 20s were arrested and charged with the crime, which was considered a capital offense in the state at the time.
According to Lavoie, “all seven men were convicted and sentenced to death within eight days. Some of the defendants were impaired at the time of their arrests or unable to read confessions they signed and none of the men had attorneys present while they were interrogated.”
On Feb. 2, 1951, four of the men were executed in the state’s electric chair. Three days later, the remaining men met the same fate.
“All of them were tried by all-white juries,” Lavoie reported. “It was the largest group of people executed for a single-victim crime in Virginia’s history.”
Explaining his decision to pardon the “Martinsville Seven,” Gov. Northam said he was not attempting to address the guilt or innocence of the men. Instead, the pardon was an acknowledgment that the men did not receive due process during their trials and received a “racially-biased death sentence not similarly applied to white defendants.”
Gov. Northam also pointed to Virginia’s tragic history of applying the death penalty almost exclusively to Black men; between 1908 and 1951, all 45 men killed in the electric chair were Black.
“These men were executed because they were Black, and that’s not right,” Northam told the crowd that assembled to hear his decision on the case. “Their punishment did not fit the crime. They should not have been executed.”
“This is about righting wrongs,” he added. “We all deserve a criminal justice system that is fair, equal, and gets it right — no matter who you are or what you look like.”
In a letter sent to Gov. Northam earlier this year asking him to look at the case, advocates wrote, “the Martinsville Seven were not given adequate due process ‘simply for being black,’ they were sentenced to death for a crime that a white person would not have been executed for ‘simply for being black,’ and they were killed, by the Commonwealth, ‘simply for being black.’”
Eric W. Rise, an associate professor at the University of Delaware and author of a 1995 book on the case called The Martinsville Seven: Race, Rape, and Capital Punishment, has also cast doubt on the trials the men received and the overall verdict in the case, saying the men were forced to sign statements without their parents or attorneys present. Rise also noted that four of the men attempted to testify in their own defense without any legal representation ever provided to them.
Rudolph McCollum Jr., a former Richmond mayor and a distant family member of two of the Martinsville Seven, said he wept when he heard Northam’s pardon announcement. He also said the case of the “Martinsville Seven” represents “a wound that continues to mar Virginia’s history and the efforts to move beyond its dubious past.”
James Walter Grayson, the son of Francis DeSales Grayson, who was also present at the pardoning, was overjoyed by the news. “Thank you, Jesus. Thank you, Lord,” he said. “It means so much to me.”
Lavoie reported that Northam has now granted a remarkable 604 pardons since taking office in 2018, more than the previous nine governors combined. In March 2021, he also signed legislation abolishing Virginia’s death penalty.
“It was a dramatic shift for Virginia, a state that had the second-highest number of executions in the U.S.,” Lavoie said. “The case of the Martinsville Seven was cited during the legislative debate as an example of the disproportionate use of the death penalty against people of color.”