Editor’s Note: The Governor issued a posthumous pardon for the Martinsville Seven on 31 August 2021.
Last week marked the 70th anniversary of the February 1951 executions of the Martinsville Seven. Joe Henry Hampton, Howard Lee Hairston, Booker T. Millner, Frank Hairston, Jr., John Clabon Taylor, James Luther Hairston, and Francis DeSales Grayson, seven Black men from Martinsville, Virginia, were convicted and sentenced to die for the January 1949 rape of Ruby Stroud Floyd, a 32-year-old white woman.
The case garnered national news coverage. Two civil rights organizations, the Civil Rights Congress (CRC) and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), advocated for the Martinsville Seven. The CRC launched a public relations campaign to raise awareness of the case and pressured Virginia Governor John Battle to grant clemency.
The NAACP, in their appeals to the Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals and the United States Supreme Court, focused, in part, on the racial disparities in the application of the death penalty for rape. Since 1908, when Virginia began use of the electric chair, the Commonwealth executed only Black men for rape. The Court of Appeals upheld the convictions in 1950 and the Supreme Court twice declined to hear the case. The CRC and NAACP clemency petitions to Governor Battle also failed. The Martinsville Seven executions—four on 2 February 1951 and three on 5 February 1951, carried out at the Virginia State Penitentiary in Richmond—became the largest mass execution for rape in the United States.
In December 2020, the Martinsville 7 Project asked Virginia Governor Ralph Northam to pardon the Martinsville Seven posthumously and issue an apology. The Martinsville 7 Project, according to their website, seeks to highlight the case, share their stories, collect and post records related to the case, and promote the pardon request. The posthumous pardon request is part of a larger movement to address past racial injustices. Some examples include Lena Baker (pardoned in 2005), the Groveland Four (pardoned in 2019), Thomas and Meeks Griffin (pardoned in 2009), and Bayard Rustin (pardoned in 2020).
The Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project (CRRJ) at Northeastern University School of Law applies restorative justice “to speak to the descendants of racial terror, foster accountability, support reparations, honor the healing process, memorialize victims, and further racial reconciliation.” In 2014, the CRRJ filed a brief in the effort to exonerate George Stinney, a 14-year-old South Carolina Black boy executed for murder in June 1944. The effort was successful. A South Carolina judge in December 2014 vacated Stinney’s conviction on the basis that he did not receive a fair trial. As of this writing, Governor Northam has not yet taken any action on the Martinsville Seven pardon application.
The Library of Virginia collections containing records related to the Martinsville Seven include the gubernatorial papers of William Tuck (1946-1950) and John Battle (1950-1954), and the Virginia State Penitentiary records. Eric W. Rise’s 1998 book, The Martinsville Seven: Race, Rape and Capital Punishment, is the most comprehensive history of the case.
Below are documents related to each of the men.