By Taylor Boyd and Callie Hietala
A group plans to send a delegation to Richmond next month if it does not soon receive a response to a resolution approved by the Martinsville City Council.
The council unanimously passed a resolution on July 27 asking Gov. Ralph Northam to commute the sentences of the Martinsville Seven.
The Martinsville Seven – Joe Henry Hampton, Frank Hairston Jr., Howard Lee Hairston, James Luther Hairston, John Clabon Taylor, Booker T. Millner, and Francis DeSales Grayson – all Black men, were found guilty of the 1949 rape of Ruby Floyd by all-white, all-male juries in single-day trials.
They were executed in the electric chair in February 1951. To date, it is the largest mass execution for a single-victim crime in Virginia’s history.
Cordelia “Faye” Holland, director of the Martinsville Seven Initiative, said if the group does not receive a response from the governor by the end of August, it plans to send a delegation to Richmond to discuss the issue directly with Northam or his representatives.
She began the Martinsville Seven Initiative, now a 501(c)3 organization, in 2019 to focus on “challenging and attempting to rectify injustices for people of color in Martinsville and Henry County.”
Securing a commutation for the men is the first step in the Initiative’s plan to preserve the history of the case.
“I just feel like there should be some recognition, some statement somewhere that says this injustice should not have happened,” Holland said, and added that she contacted City Attorney Eric Monday and Vice Mayor Jennifer Bowles to discuss the Initiative’s request for a resolution and move the process forward.
The Initiative previously sent a similar resolution to Northam in conjunction with The Martinsville 7 Project, a group based in Fairfax, VA which, according to its website, seeks to “humanize the Martinsville 7 by sharing their stories,” and to “serve as a clearinghouse of information about the Martinsville 7, their stories, historical background, case information, news reports, and advocacy to the Martinsville 7.” The group also works to “highlight & promote the Martinsville 7 case … & the call for pardons.”
Holland and the Initiative partnered on the resolution with the Fayette Area Historical Initiative (FAHI), where she serves as a board member.
“There is no historical record of any white person ever being executed for the crime of rape in the Commonwealth of Virginia,” Monday said at the July meeting.
In their appeal, attorneys from the NAACP representing the men argued that the death penalty itself was discriminatory in its application.
“In the twentieth century, 296 of the 377 defendants executed by the state of Virginia were Black and all 45 men executed for rape were Black,” the resolution states.
Monday added that “under any and all circumstances, there is no scenario under modern American jurisprudence that these men would have been executed.”
Before the vote, Council member Danny Turner requested an amendment to reflect that the men’s guilt was not in question.
The resolution asks the governor to issue “a reprieve and commutation” of the death sentences of the seven men, Monday said, and added that “is different than a pardon. It does not reach the issue of guilt or innocence. What it simply says is that the punishment did not fit the crime.”
The resolution passed without any amendments.
“There needs to be more representation of that horrific event, because it did occur,” she said. “It’s kind of a stain on the City of Martinsville, because there’s a big ol’ black eye. And it did not only receive national notoriety, it received international notoriety with people that said, ‘hey, what are you folks doing? Why would you execute these guys?’”
Despite the case garnering international attention as it unfolded, the story has largely been ignored locally in more recent years, according to Holland.
“I’m originally from Patrick County, but for years this thing had kind of baffled me,” she said. “When I first heard of the Martinsville Seven, it’s like, ‘how does something like that exist and nobody’s heard about it, nobody talks about it? How does that happen and there’s no history?’”
Moving forward, Holland hopes to continue to build partnerships with institutions like FAHI and other area museums, like the Martinsville-Henry County Historical Society, to develop better representation for the Martinsville Seven story.
The historical society plans to put an interpretive panel about in the courtroom of the historic courthouse in Uptown where the initial hearings were held. The city has sponsored a historical marker which is scheduled for review by the Department of Historic Resources in September. If approved, the goal is to unveil the new marker, which will be located on the city-owned traffic island in front of the old courthouse next to the Joseph Martin marker, during Black History Month of 2022.
Others in the community feel that focusing on the story of the Martinsville Seven will do more damage than good.
“It’s a sore spot, you don’t want to just drag it in the mud all the time and say, ‘here it was and this is what happened,’” said Henry County Archivist Desmond Kendrick, who also owns a history museum in Uptown Martinsville and has spent years collecting stories and documents pertaining to the case.
Kendrick’s father was a relative of Bill Carter, one of the attorneys who prosecuted the case in Martinsville. As a teenager, Kendrick asked Carter about the case. “I would ask him things …, and he would get hot.”
“There’s a lot of trauma there,” Kendrick said. His mentor, Richard Gravely, “knew Mrs. Floyd … and he would get upset when he talked about it.”
“Mrs. Floyd, according to her nephew, she always had mental issues until she died after that,” Kendrick said. “I know it’s still a hard thing for (the families)” on both sides.
He worries that constant reminders of the case will only serve to divide the community.
“It’s a part of our history that you’ve got to keep,” said Kendrick. “You can’t forget about it, but you got your limits on things too.”
Holland thinks the right path, though, is to discuss the case and have it represented. Her organization plans to create an oral history project to include family members and people in the community.
“It’s to get folks to talk about it and maybe heal a little bit from the pain of it,” she said.
To contact the initiative, call (276) 226-4318. For more information on the Martinsville Seven, visit www.martinsville7.org.