by Anthony W. Accurso
Governor Ralph Northam (D-VA) signed posthumous pardons for seven Black men denied due process in a criminal case following a rape allegation involving a white woman in Martinsville, Virginia, in 1949.
On January 8, 1949, 32-year-old Ruby Stroud Floyd alleged she was raped by 13 Black men while visiting the predominantly Black neighborhood of Martinsville. Several men were arrested, and Floyd identified Joe Henry Hampton (19) and Francis DeSales Grayson (37) as belonging to the group that allegedly raped her.
The others—John Clayborn Taylor (21), Booker T. Millner (19), James Luther Hairston (20), Howard Lee Hairston (18), and Frank Hairston Jr. (19)—were interrogated and coerced into signing confessions, despite not having access to defense attorneys or being able to read.
They were convicted at trial by all-white, all-male juries and sentenced to death a mere eight days after trial.
Groups including the NAACP wrote letters, held vigils, submitted editorials to local publications, and even petitioned President Harry Truman to intervene in the obvious miscarriage of justice.
These efforts were for naught, however, as all the men were executed by February 5, 1951.
During the ceremony where Northam announced the pardons, 15 descendants of the Martinsville Seven were in attendance.
“I was traumatized by this incident,” said Curtis Millner, then nine years-old, a cousin of Booker T. Millner.
Grayson, the oldest of the men accused, was also a veteran of World War II.
Virginia was once notorious for its use of capital punishment. Over 400 years, the state executed 1,400 people—a disproportionate number of whom were Black men—more than any other state. “[A]ll 73 people executed for rape, attempted rape, and robbery between 1900 and 1999 were Black,” according to vice.com.
However, in February 2021, the state became the first in the Old South to abolish the death penalty, and Gov. Northam has granted 604 pardons since taking office in 2019.
Descendants of the Martinsville Seven continued to advocate for justice decades after the executions, but the current push to address the systemic racism in criminal justice systems likely aided in these changes. Nonprofit Black history archive BlackPast.org also provided records of the original incident.
“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,” said Northam. “I’m grateful to the advocates and families of the Martinsville Seven for their dedication and perseverance. While we can’t change the past, I hope [this] action brings them some small measure of peace.”
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