By Callie Hietala
The story of the Martinsville 7 will soon be seen on the big screen, thanks to a partnership between the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, Legacy Productions, and the Martinsville 7 Initiative.
The groups are collaborating on a documentary film analyzing the treatment of Black men in America and highlighting the story of the Martinsville 7. Profits from the film will go to the Martinsville 7 Initiative to fund its vision for a museum and programming, according to Glenn Crossman, director of programs for the center.
The Martinsville 7 were Joe Henry Hampton, Frank Hairston, Howard Lee Hairston, James Luther Hairston, John Clabon, Booker T. Millner, and Francis DeSales—a group of seven Black men executed in 1951 for the alleged rape of Ruby Floyd, a white woman, in 1949. To date, it is the largest mass execution for a single-victim crime in Virginia’s history. On August 31, Gov. Ralph Northam granted all 7 men posthumous pardons.
The documentary was announced at a gala event at New College Institute in Martinsville celebrating the pardons.
Crossman said the goal of the new documentary, which is still seeking funding, is “to tell the story of how America has treated Black masculinity for the past 400 years through telling the story of the Martinsville 7.”
He said the documentary team intends to include a representative from the families of the 7 on the film’s committee.
Since 1998, the UVA Center for Politics has been producing documentaries,” Crossman said. A series of films telling stories of the lives and legacies of past Virginia governors earned the center a reputation for telling a complete story, both good and bad.
“Everyone was not always happy with the final film, but the truth is not always pretty to look at,” he said.
According to Crossman, the center has earned four Emmy Awards from the American Academy of Television Arts and Sciences for its films.
The origins of the Martinsville 7 documentary are rooted in the filming of a previous movie, “Charlottesville,” the center’s first 2-part documentary and the film of which Crossman said he is most proud.
“Charlottesville” focused on, as Crossman described it, “what really happened in Charlottesville on August 11 and 12, 2017” during the Unite the Right Rally, telling the story from a Jewish perspective “simply because no other filmmaker had told the story this way,” Crossman said.
During filming for “Charlottesville,” Crossman recalled meeting a woman on the steps of the circuit court while awaiting a judge’s decision on whether Confederate statues would remain shrouded until their ultimate fate was decided. Crossman had just finished a conversation with Unite the Right Rally organizer Jason Kessler when he crossed paths with Tanesha Hudson.
“I immediately knew she had to be interviewed,” Crossman recalled. “Here was an unfiltered, grass roots activist on the ground, getting her hands dirty and doing the hard work. She makes no apologies for her unfiltered reactions to all that is wrong in local government and doesn’t care about fitting in with the polite Virginia way.”
Crossman said Hudson learned about the Martinsville 7 while on what he described as a ‘civil rights pilgrimage.’ Upon her return, she wanted to tell their story. “Over this past summer, we met for lunch and Tanesha brought up this idea again,” Crossman said. “The timing seemed perfect, and we both agreed to get the ball rolling.”
After the meeting with Hudson, Crossman said he learned about the Martinsville 7 Initiative and connected with its director, Faye Holland.
“We had never met, but there was an immediate connection,” Crossman said. “We both agreed on what needed to happen.”
Holland told Crossman she was meeting with Gov. Northam the following week, “and I was floored,” he said. “What were the chances that in the timespan of a few days, I would reconnect with Tanesha, speak with Faye Holland, and get the ball rolling so quickly on a new film project? The timing was uncanny.”
After Northam’s posthumous pardons for the 7 men, Crossman said he and Hudson visited Martinsville for the first time, meeting with Holland and walking through the uptown area.
“Our first stop was a private museum with a Confederate statue outside,” he said, referencing the Martinsville-Henry County Heritage Center and Museum, which he and Hudson toured. “We had the opportunity to learn a lot about the history of Martinsville from one perspective. It finally dawned on us that we were standing in the courthouse where the Martinsville 7 were tried, yet there was nothing about them in the museum. It many ways, that illustrates a big part of why this film is so necessary,” he said.
“This needs to be a national story and not one that is kept behind the borders of Virginia,” he said. “Each of these men; all deserve for the true and complete story to be told, not one that immediately assumes their guilt or discounts the quick severity of their punishment.
“Nearly every person that was ever executed in the state of Virginia for rape was Black,” Crossman said, adding that the Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC) is “not aware of any case in the United States where a white man was executed for raping, but not killing, a Black woman or child.” He said the DPIC’s data indicated that, of the 455 people executed for rape in the U.S. between 1930 and 1972, more than 89 percent, or 405, were Black.
“It is beyond time to tell this story and teach the American people about these tragic events,” Crossman said. “We feel strongly about bringing this story to light in a way that we hope the viewer will acknowledge the wrongs that were done to these 7 men and also the long history of Black oppression that, to this day, permeates most aspects of American life.”
To help with fundraising for the documentary, contact Crossman at (423) 270-4738 or email@example.com.