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7 Black Men Executed For Violation Of A White Woman In 1951 Granted Posthumous Pardons

Antonia 02/09/2021

The 'Martinsville Seven' - seven black men who were executed for a 1949 rape of a white woman in Virginia - were posthumously pardoned by the governor on Tuesday after being deprived of their due process rights. 

The men were convicted in 1951 after a speedy trial by all-white juries and given 'a racially-biased death sentence,' Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam said. 

The 'Martinsville Seven' were all convicted of raping Ruby Stroud Floyd, 32, 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.  

Northam issued 'simple pardons' on Tuesday for 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.

They were accused and found guilty of gang raping Floyd for 90 minutes. She said she had been raped at least 13 times.  

A simple pardon doesn't exonerate the men. It's meant to highlight the racial inequality of the cases and the lack of due process, Northam said. 

Family members of Francis Grayson, 37, (pictured) were in attendance when the Virginia governor issued simple pardons

'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,' Democratic Gov. Northam said in a statement. 

'While we can’t change the past, I hope today’s action brings them some small measure of peace.'

Floyd was known to many as the “Watchtower Woman” because she frequently distributed the magazine door-to-door for the Jehovah’s Witnesses, according to published reports.

Floyd was known to many as the 'Watchtower Woman' because she distributed the magazine door-to-door for the Jehovah’s Witnesses, according to published reports, before the brutal sexual assault on January 8, 1949. 

During the 11-day trials, prosecutors presented medical evidence of Floyd’s physical injuries and accounts from black witnesses, whom Floyd appealed to for help after the assault. 

The defense argued that Floyd consented to the sex by failing to forcibly resist the men. 

In total, their were six trials (two of the men were tried in the same trial) that consisted of 72 white jurors. Each trial lasted one day. 

Some of the defendants were drunk at the time of their arrests, were illiterate and couldn't read the confessions that they signed, didn't have an attorney present during interrogation and were convicted by all-white juries. 

Four of the men were executed in Virginia's electric chair on Feb. 2, 1951. The remaining three suffered the same fate three days later. 

At the time, the case attracted pleas for mercy from around the world and became a lightning rod for racial justice. 

Crowds of people picketed in front of the White House, marched on the Virginia state Capitol in Richmond and held nearly daily prayer vigils before their executions.  

Rose Grayson, niece of Francis DeSales Grayson, comforts James Grayson, son of Francis DeSales Grayson (left) and Rudy McCollum, great nephew of Francis DeSales Grayson, one of the Martinsville Seven, after Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam issued posthumous pardons for Grayson and the other six members on August 31 - 70 years after their execution

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam talks to the families of the descendants of the Martinsville Seven

The cries for mercy echoed through the years and gained steamed late last year as  the United States underwent a racial awakening following murder of George Floyd. 

The push for pardons gained steam in December when advocates and descendants of the men - spearheaded by the Martinsville 7 Project - asked Northam to issue posthumous pardons. 

After meeting with about a dozen descendants of the men and their advocates, Northam announced the simple pardons on Tuesday during a presentation where the cries and sobs could be heard from some of the Martinsville Seven's decedents. 

Walter Grayson, who is the son of Francis DeSales Grayson, sobbed loudly when the pardons were announced Tuesday and said. 'Thank you, Jesus. Thank you, Lord.' 

In this Jan. 30, 1951 file photo, demonstrators march in front of the White House in Washington in what they said was an effort to persuade President Harry Truman to halt execution of seven black men sentenced to death in Virginia on charges of raping a white woman. Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam granted posthumous pardons 70 years

Northam, right, signs posthumous pardons for the Martinsville Seven as family members watch during a ceremony inside the Patrick Henry Building in Richmond, Virginia on Tuesday

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam's tweet following the official pardons of the Martinsville Seven

At the time, rape was a capital offense, but Northam said during Tuesday's announcement that the death penalty for rape was almost entirely applied to black people. 

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 said. 

The Martinsville 7 Project's push for pardons was joined by a host of other civic leaders and groups, including the NAACP. 

The Martinsville 7 Project's petition does not argue that the men were innocent, but says their trials were unfair and the punishment was extreme and unjust.

'The Martinsville Seven executions remain a raw wound for many Virginians. Justice is long overdue,' a December letter to the governor said. 

'If a posthumous pardon is not a viable option, we urge you to propose legislation to the General Assembly to make it available for future governors in resolving this kind of miscarriage of justice.' 

The Martinsville Seven was cited in the state's abolishment of the death penalty, a dramatic shift for Virginia that had the second-highest number of executions in the country.  

The legislation was passed by the state's Democrat-controlled legislature and signed by the governor in March.  

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