By Callie Hietala
One chapter in the decades-old saga of Martinsville’s most infamous criminal case came to a close on August 31, when Gov. Ralph Northam issued a posthumous pardon for the Martinsville Seven, a group of young Black men executed in 1951 for the alleged rape of Ruby Floyd, a white woman.
“I’ve thought about this a lot,” Northam said at meeting in Richmond that included descendants of the seven men, members of the Martinsville community, and representatives from several groups advocating for the pardons. “I’ve been looking forward to meeting with you all. So yesterday I asked my staff to go ahead and put some paperwork together. And so today, I’m giving each one of the seven a posthumous pardon.”
According to a press release issued by the governor’s office, while these pardons do not address the guilt of the seven, they serve as recognition that the men were tried without adequate due process and received a racially biased death sentence not similarly applied to white defendants.
“This is about righting wrongs,” said Northam. “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. I’m grateful to the advocates and families of the Martinsville Seven for their dedication and perseverance. While we can’t change the past, I hope today’s action brings them some small measure of peace.”
The Martinsville Seven were Frank Hairston Jr. (18), Booker T. Millner (19), Francis DeSales Grayson (37), Howard Lee Hairston (18), James Luther Hairston (20), Joe Henry Hampton (19), and John Claybon Taylor (21.) All seven men were convicted and sentenced to death within eight days by juries made up entirely of white men.
At the meeting announcing the pardons, Deputy Secretary of the Commonwealth read a poem written in the 1950s by Cuban poet Nicolás Guillén about the Martinsville Seven, reflecting the international attention the case garnered at the time:
“Seven Black voices in Martinsville call seven times to Jesus by name and they ask him in seven cries of rage, like seven lances, they ask in Martinsville, in seven strikes of sulphur, like seven volcanic rocks, they ask seven times for revenge.”
The pardon announcement came nearly a month after Martinsville City Council, working in conjunction with the Martinsville Seven Initiative, sent a resolution to Northam asking that he posthumously reprieve and commute the sentences of the seven men. Securing the pardon was the priority of the Martinsville Seven Initiative, said Initiative director Faye Holland.
“It’s been so long coming,” said Holland after the pardon was announced. “It’s pretty amazing that it happened now.”
She said she hopes the pardon will be considered a vehicle of healing, both for the families and the community.
The announcement also was met with tears of joy and relief from family members, along with feelings of elation and relief as the group traveled back from their meeting with the governor, Holland said.
“It’s an emotional day for the families,” she said, and added she hopes that, with this first milestone accomplished, the Initiative can now move forward with plans for commemoration and memorialization for the seven men.
Martinsville Mayor Kathy Lawson also was pleased with the governor’s decision.
“As we reviewed the information and facts presented to council regarding the Martinsville Seven, it became apparent that the sentence to death was cruel and unusual punishment. As we presented in our resolution, ‘under the mandates of modern jurisprudence and our nation’s devotion to the principle of ‘equal justice under law,’ the Martinsville Seven would, under any and all circumstances, never have been executed- without regard to their guilt or innocence, and with that we requested a commutation of their respective death sentences.
“I feel this was the correct decision made by the Governor and applaud those whose combined efforts resulted in the Governor’s granting of the pardons,” Lawson said.
In a statement, Vice Mayor Jennifer Bowles wrote, “This is a very momentous occasion for our area. The Martinsville City Council, the Martinsville Seven Initiative, the families of those affected by the tragedy, and our citizens. In today’s society, this sentence would never be imposed. I am very appreciative for Governor Northam and his staff for their forward thinking and helping right a wrong. Let’s use this moment to continue to be inclusive and make a more equitable world for everyone.”
Assistant City Manager Eric Monday added his own congratulations to the announcement.
“Thanks to Governor Northam for his historic action today. Congratulations to the Martinsville Seven Initiative, and to city council, for their work in obtaining this outcome,” Monday said. “In addition, the Virginia Bar Association, the oldest organization of attorneys in Virginia, had endorsed this effort. As all involved have stated, the death penalty would never have been considered for the Martinsville Seven, under modern principles of justice.
“There is a pending application for an historical marker for the Martinsville Seven which will be considered by the Virginia Department of Historic Resources at its December meeting, and obviously it will now need to include this fitting, and just, ending to a long and sad story,” Monday added.
Before abolishing the death penalty earlier this year, Virginia had executed more people than any other state—and studies have shown that a defendant is more than three times as likely to be sentenced to death if the victim of a crime is white than if the victim is Black. From 1908 to 1951, all 45 prisoners executed for rape in Virginia were Black men. In 1977, the Supreme Court ruled that imposing the death penalty for rape was cruel and unusual punishment.
According to the release, the pardons recognize the unjust, racially biased sentences these men received, as well as the disturbing lack of due process in their trials and convictions.