On 31 August 2021, Virginia finally offered a long overdue pardon to the Martinsville Seven.
Seven decades after seven men from the state were executed for an alleged sexual assault, they have been offered a posthumous pardon from Gov. Ralph Northam. The Martinsville Seven case drew national attention at the time, largely due to the police handling and judicial process.
As the case returns to headlines this month, some are learning about what happened in Martinsville for the very first time.
The Martinsville Seven case revisited
On 2 February, 1951, four of seven Black American men were executed in Virginia’s electric chair. Three days later, three more men were electrocuted.
These men were facing capital punishment over the alleged rape of a white woman, Ruby Stroud Floyd, two years prior. At the time, rape was a capital offence in Virginia. The men were all in their late teens and early 20s, except for one of them, who was in his 30s.
They became known as the “Martinsville Seven,” as the case made headlines and resulted in protest in the early 1950s. On 30 January 1951, demonstrators marched in front of the White House in an effort to persuade President Truman to halt the execution.
Descendants of the Martinsville Seven claim the men were interrogated under duress, without the presence of a lawyer, and that their confessions were coerced under threat of mob violence. Additionally, they were tried by all-white, all-male juries, at a time when Jim Crow law dominated the American South.
The Martinsville Seven was the largest group of people executed for a single-victim crime in Virginia’s history, and, in recent years, the case has been denounced as an example of racial discrimination in the use of the death penalty.
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Who was Ruby Stroud Floyd?
Ruby Stroud Floyd was 32 years old at the time of the attack. She had gone to a predominantly black neighbourhood in Martinsville, Virginia on 8 January, 1949, to collect money for clothes she had sold.
Floyd identified two of the men – Francis DeSales Grayson and Joe Henry Hampton – as her alleged attackers. She struggled to identify the others as the attack happened at night.
A piece published by the Civil Rights Congress and the Virginia Committee to Save the Martinsville Seven on 8 November 1950 revealed that Ruby Stroud Floyd disappeared shortly after taking her case to court and one has been able to find her since.
Floyd would have been born between 1917 and 1919, meaning she would now be over 100 years old, if still alive.
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The Martinsville Seven posthumously pardoned this August
On Tuesday, 31 August 2021, Governor Northam was joined by descendants of the Martinsville Seven as he ceremonially signed pardons for them.
The pardoned men are: Francis DeSales Grayson, 37; Booker T. Millner, 19; Frank Hairston Jr., 19; Howard Lee Hairston, 18; James Luther Hairston, 20; Joe Henry Hampton, 19; and John Claybon Taylor, 21.
“This is about righting wrongs,” Northam said in a press release. “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. While we can’t change the past, I hope today’s action brings them some small measure of peace.”
Governor Northam, a Democrat, has signed 604 pardons since taking office in 2018, more than the previous nine governors combined.