Seven Black men who were executed nearly 70 years ago in Martinsville, Va., for allegedly raping a white woman, were pardoned yesterday (August 31, 2021) by Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam. The men known as the "Martinsville Seven," were pardoned posthumously after the governor met with a dozen of the executed men’s descendants.
"This is about righting wrongs," Northam said in a news release. "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. While we can't change the past, I hope today's action brings them some small measure of peace."
Northam said that these pardons do not address whether the men were guilty, but they serve "as recognition from the Commonwealth" that these men were tried without adequate due process.
Ruby Stroud Floyd, a 32 year old white woman, said she was raped by 13 Black men as she passed through a Black neighborhood in January 1949. According to history site BlackPast.org, Floyd identified Francis DeSales Grayson, 37, and Joe Henry Hampton, 19 as having attacked her. She had trouble identifying the other men.
None of the men accused of the rape had a lawyer present when they were questioned about the crime, and not all of the men were able to read the confessions they signed. The Martinsville Seven all confessed to committing or witnessing the crime, and each man was charged with rape. At the time in Virginia, rape was a capitol offense. In addition to Hampton and Grayson, the others executed after being tried by juries of all white men were Frank Hairston Jr., 18, Booker T. Millner, 19, Howard Lee Hairston, 18, James Luther Hairston, and John Claybon Taylor, 21.
Four of the men were executed in Virginia's electric chair on Feb. 2, 1951. Three days later, the other three accused men were electrocuted.
The case of the Martinsville Seven has served as an historical example of the uneven application of the death penalty when it comes to race, particularly if the accused is Black and the victim is white.
According to CNN, from 1908 to 1951, all 45 prisoners executed for rape in Virginia were Black. It wasn’t until 1977 that the US Supreme Court ruled that imposing the death penalty for rape constituted cruel and unusual punishment.