By Brandon Martin
Family members of the Martinsville Seven and the Free Minds Book Club and Writing Workshop united on Feb. 1 to hold a virtual vigil for the seven African American men executed by the Commonwealth in 1951 for allegedly raping Ruby Floyd, a white woman in Martinsville in 1949.
The vigil was the first event scheduled during the first week of Black History Month to honor the men and bring attention to a collective effort by the family members and advocates to obtain a posthumous pardon from Gov. Ralph Northam for the Martinsville Seven.
The men ━ Frank Hairston, James Luther Hairston, Howard Lee Hairston, Booker T. Millner, John C. Taylor, Joe Henry Hampton, and Francis DeSales Grayson ━ were executed on Feb. 2 and Feb. 5, 1951.
Cordelia Holland, director of the Martinsville Seven Initiative to seek the pardon, said the push began because “in Martinsville, there is this unheard and unspoken history of the Martinsville Seven.”
She said a group of concerned citizens living in Martinsville decided that “this tragedy should not have happened.”
After reading about another group ━ the Martinsville Seven project ━ Holland said she was “elated” to finally have support in the cause.
“Our mission is to challenge and attempt to rectify injustices for people of color in Martinsville and Henry County,” Holland said. “We want to call attention to the systemic racism created and fueled years ago in our area. We want to see closure for the families and all of Martinsville. The Martinsville Seven were really our families, our cousins, our brothers, our sons. We all feel it. We really need family member participation. Any family members that are out there, we’d love to hear from you.”
James Grayson, the youngest son of Francis DeSales Grayson, said his father’s case was a “miscarriage of justice” which he would later go on to experience himself.
“I was two years old when this thing occurred, Since then, my life has been turned upside down and inside out,” James Grayson said. “I feel like all of them were innocent because they weren’t really tried legally.”
James Grayson said he also was tried and served a 40-year sentence “for a crime that I did not commit.
“Because of the law and the way that it is today, you don’t always have a fair chance,” he said. “All of this came about because of the Martinsville Seven. During the time of my trial, they used the Martinsville Seven against me to get a conviction. They said, ‘like father, like son.’”
The story of the Martinsville Seven impacted another family member in a completely different way.
Rudolph McCollum, great-nephew of Francis DeSales Grayson and nephew of Millner, said learning about his family history pushed him to pursue a law degree. Originally born in Martinsville, McCollum later served as the mayor of Richmond.
“I feel a sense of solidarity here, today, that I’ve never felt before,” McCollum said. “In dealing with this issue for all my life, it’s been one that I’ve dealt with pretty much alone. It was not something that the adults in my family sat us down and talked about. Fortunately, it challenged me to where I wanted to learn about” the executions of the Martinsville Seven “by going through law school. That’s where I was able to read more about what happened.”
With more knowledge came more frustration, according to McCollum, “because it showed me there is a big difference between the law, which is what I learned, but I didn’t learn about justice.”
McCollum said if Gov. Ralph Northam grants a posthumous pardon, it would “allow the state to admit it was wrong and right that wrong.”
Nick Matuszewski, president of the William and Mary Law Society, discussed some of the arguments in favor of the pardon request which he helped co-author in December.
“One of the first questions we wanted to focus on was the question of the Martinsville Seven’s innocence,” he said. “Now, we personally believe the men were innocent and we think there are many pieces of convincing evidence that suggests that they were indeed innocent. For example, during their trials, all of the defendants partially recanted their confessions and some even testified that their confessions had been altered by the police.”
Matuszewski said it is impossible to answer whether any of the men were innocent, “but what we do know is there is a large amount of evidence to show that the seven were not given the necessary due process required by law for a jury to determine with any sense of certainty that they were guilty of the crime that led to their executions.”
Among other concerns was the treatment of the men by the police, who “acted improperly in their questioning on the accused night,” Matuszewski said. “All of the men, except for Francis Grayson, were in their late teens and early 20s at the time of their arrest. Yet, they were all alone during their questioning. They were without the presence of counsel. Additionally, many of the men were under the influence of alcohol while they were being interrogated. That alone should have caused the police to delay the interviews.”
Matuszewski said the men were also tried by “entirely white juries” even though “Martinsville was a pretty diverse town at the time.”
According to Matuszewski, the punishment also did not fit the crime.
“Before the Civil War, only black men were subjected to the death penalty for rape in Virginia,” he said. “Even though that law changed in 1866, the practice of only subjecting black men to the death penalty for rape continued. It was almost exclusively applied when the defendant was a black man, and the victim was a white woman. There have been no examples of a white man being put to death for raping anyone.”
The injustices claimed in the case of the Martinsville Seven caused other members of the vigil to reflect on their own experiences with the Virginia Criminal Justice System. Men associated with the Free Minds Book Club and Writing Workshop, also spoke in support of the posthumous pardon.
“We got involved in this campaign because we wanted to be a voice for justice,” says Eyone Williams, a member of and writing facilitator for DC based non-profit organization. “We believe that to move forward and heal, we have to acknowledge the pain and terror of our past. This is a first step.”
Jameon Gray, another group member, read a poem entitled “VOICES” which he wrote and dedicated to the Martinsville Seven.
It states, in part, “Can you hear their voices? Crashing as 7 waves on Virginia’s beach. It wasn’t me. Washing over the sand. Why won’t you believe me. Resending back into the bay. Now we’re free.”
Alfred Dearing, another member of the Free Minds, said he was impacted by the story of the Martinsville Seven because he also “served 22 years for a crime that did not fit the time.”
Speaking directly to the families of the Martinsville Seven, Dearing said “I remember times where I used to ride through Martinsville going to another prison. I used to see the sign for Martinsville.”
He said it evoked memories of research he had conducted and gave him “an eerie feeling when I would ride through. God bless you and I hope you get the closure that you are looking for.”
Tim Thomas, also of Free Minds, gave a rally cry to those interested in helping the movement.
“This is a call to action,” Thomas said. “Justice delayed is justice denied. It’s our obligation to call on him (Northam) and make our voices heard that a posthumous pardon is necessary. Seventy years that this justice has been denied. Gov. Northam has spoken about redress and equity. We believe he is on board. We want Gov. Northam on our side, and we want him to live up to his words.”
Thomas said the biggest day for activism on behalf of the Martinsville Seven occurred on Wednesday, February 3 during calls to Northam, asking him to “voice his urging ━ or demand ━ to give a posthumous pardon to the Martinsville Seven.”
Those participating are asked to take a photo or video making the call and post it on social media with the tag @Martinsville_7 or hashtag #PardonMartinsville7.
The remainder of the first week of Black History Month will also feature activities to promote the lives of the Martinsville Seven and lobby for their pardons.
Moments of silence were scheduled on Feb. 2 in recognition of the men executed on that day, including Joe Henry Hampton, 8:12 a.m.; Howard Lee Hairston, 8:32 a.m.; Booker T. Millner, 8:49 a.m.; Frank Hairston, Jr., 9:05 a.m.
Moments of silence will be observed on the final day of the week for the remainder of the men who were executed on Feb. 5, 1951, including John Clabon Taylor, 7:41 a.m.; James Luther Hairston, 8 a.m.; Francis DeSales Grayson, 8:15 a.m.
For more information about the Martinsville Seven, visit https://martinsville7.org. Local residents also may contact Holland at (276) 226-4318.
Family members and the Free Minds Book Club and Writing Workshop united on Feb. 1 to hold a virtual vigil for seven African American men, known as the Martinsville Seven, who were executed in 1951 for allegedly raping Ruby Floyd in 1949. Floyd was a white woman in Martinsville.