A large crowd gathered Sunday as a new historic marker was unveiled to commemorate the Martinsville Seven– Francis DeSales Grayson, Frank Hairston Jr., Howard Hairston, James Luther Hairston, Joe Henry Hampton, Booker T. Millner, and John Clabon Taylor.
Situated outside of the Historic Henry County Courthouse, the marker serves as a memorial for the seven black men, who in 1949 were convicted of the rape of a white woman and were sentenced to death. Despite appeals and international attention, the men were executed in February of 1951.
Gov. Ralph Northam granted a posthumous pardon for the seven on Aug. 31, 2021.
The unveiling Sunday included many relatives and descendants of the Martinsville Seven.
The City of Martinsville noted that the marker was not a symbol of innocence or guilt, but rather to denote the disproportional punishment.
“Often, we heard countless narratives of innocence or guilt in this case, and we must always stop and focus on the fact that 296 of the 377 defendants executed by the state of Virginia were black. All 45 men executed for rape were black. The case of the Martinsville Seven is systemic racism at its worst. This trial and outcome would have never occurred today,” City Vice Mayor Jennifer Bowles said.
Bowles also extended her thanks to the Martinsville-Henry County Historical Society, the Martinsville-Henry County
Chamber of Commerce, the Fayette Area Historical Initiative (FAHI), Uptown Partnership, and the City of Martinsville for help and support in making the marker a reality.
Noting the rainy day, City Attorney Eric Monday, who funded the historic marker, said, “There’s a part of me that wishes we had a prettier day for this, but I will also honestly say that perhaps this is a little more appropriate. After the passage of almost 70 years, the heavens finally weep down a few gentle tears of justice.”
Monday introduced the ceremony’s speaker, Victor Cardwell, who serves as the first black president of the Virginia Bar Association.
Cardwell said that the marker does not right the wrongs of the
past, but it is a step in the right direction. “Seventy years to get here isn’t justice, but it is the right time to move forward,” he said. “The marker is a tribute to the fact that justice delayed is justice denied, but the human spirit always strives for the best.”
Along with emphasizing that we must continue to tell the stories of these seven men, Cardwell called the audience to action.
“We must remain ever vigilant. All of our rights, all of our freedoms, and sense of justice can be under attack if we stand by and allow others to dictate what they think is right and fair. We must remain dedicated to the rule of law and fairness. We must remain heard. We will vote,” he said.
Robert McCollum, nephew of Booker T. Millner, was among several family members in attendance. He discussed the effect the executions had, and continue to have, on his family.
The marker is “very significant to me because it represents something that my family has endured throughout our lives in terms of the pain that my mother has gone through and to this day, she still feels, which is indicative of her not being able to come here today. We are representing her today. We feel that this is very, very important,” he said.
McCollum is hopeful for the conversations the marker will spark going forward.
“I hope it will spur a reconciliation of people that understand the importance of being equal,” he said. “It’s something that’s long overdue.”
Exhibits related to the Martinsville Seven can be found in the Martinsville-Henry County Historical Society museum and the FAHI museum. More information can be found on the Martinsville 7 Initiative’s website at https://martinsville7.org/.