Martinsville Seven: Black men who were executed for raping a white woman granted pardons 70 years after their deaths

Martinsville Seven: Black men who were executed for raping a white woman granted pardons 70 years after their deaths

A group of Black men known as the Martinsville Seven, who were executed in 1951 after being convicted by all-White juries of raping a White woman, were on Tuesday August 31 pardoned by Governor Ralph Northam of Virginia.

The men were all convicted of raping 32-year-old Ruby Stroud Floyd, a white woman who had gone to a predominantly black neighborhood in Martinsville, Virginia, on January 8, 1949, to collect money for clothes she had sold.

The Martinsville case became a civil rights flash point shortly after the men were arrested in January 1949.

It was gathered that the woman who recounted walking past a group of Black men drinking by the railroad tracks in the Southside Virginia town in her court testimony which lasted for two hours, said one of them tackled her, before some of them raped her repeatedly, threatening to kill her if she screamed and dragged her into the woods after she briefly escaped.

Police quickly rounded up seven Black men and produced signed confessions. While all seven were said to have admitted having sex or attempting to have sex with the woman, their descriptions of events differed, and all pleaded not guilty to having sex by force.

Several of the men were illiterate and could not read their own confessions, and none had a lawyer present when they signed. They were convicted in just eight days by all-White juries.

Frank Hairston Jr. (18 years old), 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), of Martinsville, were then executed in February 1951.

However in 1977, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that imposing the death penalty in cases of rape amounted to cruel and unusual punishment under the Constitution.

Late last year, relatives and descendants of the executed men petitioned Northam to issue a posthumous pardon, at least the second time they had requested he do so. The families did not argue that the men were innocent but rather that they did not receive impartial justice.

The petition read;

“The Martinsville Seven were not given adequate due process.

“They were sentenced to death for a crime that a white person would not have been executed for . . . and they were killed, by the Commonwealth, ‘simply for being black.’ ”

Commenting on the execution, Governor Northam said from 1908 when Virginia began using the electric chair to 1951, state records show that all 45 people executed for rape were black.

He said;

“These men were executed because they were black and that’s not right."

Northam added that prior to abolishing the death penalty in 2021, 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.”

A statement from the Governor's office read;

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“Governor Northam’s pardons recognize the unjust, racially-biased sentences these men received, as well as the disturbing lack of due process in their trials and convictions. All members of the Martinsville Seven were convicted and sentenced to death within eight days, and each defendant was tried by juries made up entirely of white men. Some of the defendants were impaired at the time of arrest or unable to read the confessions they signed, and none had attorneys present during their interrogation.

“Pardons should not have to be a part of the process to ensure a fair and equitable justice system, but unfortunately that’s been case for far too long and I’m happy we have a Governor that believes in using his clemency powers to right the wrongs and provide second chances,” said Secretary of the Commonwealth Kelly Thomasson. “Governor Northam is committed to criminal justice reform, and has made it a priority to thoroughly review and act on pardon petitions. We’re seeing the results today.”

Northam has used the pardon more than any other governor of the modern era, according to state officials. In July, for instance, he granted an absolute pardon to Bobbie Morman Jr., who served 22 years in prison for his part in a Norfolk shooting in which no one got injured.

Earlier in August he exonerated Emerson Eugene Stephens, a waterman from Reedville who spent 32 years behind bars for a murder that he didn’t commit.

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