Posthumous pardons urged for 7 executed in notorious 1951 Va. case
Fate of the ‘Martinsville 7’ stirred international furor, debate over race and justice
In late 1950 and early 1951, seven Black men awaited death in Virginia’s electric chair in the rape of a white woman, drawing attention to Richmond from across the country and around the world.
Letters pleading for mercy flooded the governor’s office along with telegrams from as far away as Moscow. There was picketing at the White House, marches on the state Capitol in Richmond and a prayer vigil there attended by hundreds of people both Black and white — all for naught.
The “Martinsville Seven” were executed in two groups, four men on Feb. 2, 1951, and three on Feb. 5, at the former Virginia State Penitentiary a mile and a half from the state Capitol — the most executions for crimes against a single victim in state history and one of the largest in U.S. history.
Seven decades later, at least two relatives of the men— one a former mayor of Richmond— and others are asking Gov. Ralph Northam to issue a posthumous pardon and an apology for the seven executions in a state where the death penalty for rape was almost entirely imposed on Black men.
The request, sent to Northam’s office on Thursday, comes as the 70th anniversary of the executions approaches in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement that has shaken Richmond and the nation, and as the Virginia General Assembly will soon again consider abolishing the death penalty.
The letter quotes remarks made by Northam earlier this year. “Posthumously pardoning the Martinsville Seven would be a recognition of a fundamental truth that has plagued the history of the Commonwealth as well as the country as a whole, a point that you made after George Floyd’s murder: “George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and many others have been wrongfully killed, simply for being black. People all over our country are hurting and angry, and rightly so.”
“The Martinsville Seven were not given adequate due process ‘ simply for being black,’ they were sentenced to death for a crime that a white person would not have been executed for ‘ simply for being black,’ and they were killed, by the Commonwealth, ‘ simply for being black.’”
“The Martinsville Seven executions remain a raw wound for many Virginians. Justice is long overdue. 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 letter urges.
Rudolph McCollum Jr., the mayor of Richmond from 2001 to 2005, a former member of the Virginia Parole Board and the nephew of one of the executed men, believes that the General Assembly may need to give the governor the ability to grant a posthumous pardon if he were inclined to do so.
Apparently no posthumous pardons have ever been granted in Virginia, and it’s unclear how one would or could be granted.
They have been granted in recent years in the similar, decades-old, racially-tinged rape cases known as the “Groveland Four,” in Florida, and the “Scottsboro Boys,” in Alabama.
While those cases are better known than Martinsville’s, in a 1992 article in The Journal of Southern History, author Eric W. Rise concluded that “the execution of the Martinsville Seven, more than any other case, demonstrated the power of the southern legal system to enforce codes of racial behavior.”
“Not even the Scottsboro case, the cause celebre for a generation of combatants against racial injustice, carried the same force because all of the defendants escaped execution,” wrote Rise in “Race, Rape, and Radicalism: The Case of the Martinsville Seven, 1949-1951.”
Rise, a professor of criminal justice at the University of Delaware, also wrote a book on the case published in 1998: “The Martinsville Seven, Race, Rape and Capital Punishment.”
Rise wrote that the Martinsville case differed from the Scottsboro case, where there was questionable testimony from two victims. Evidence in Martinsville showed that nonconsensual sex had taken place and that all seven men admitted they were present at the scene.
“Although some may not have consummated the act, Virginia law authorized capital punishment for attempted rape and for aiding and abetting a rape,” Rise explained.
A transcript shows that at a pre-trial hearing Judge Kennon Whittle told prosecutors and defense lawyers that the accused “will be tried as though both parties were members of the same race. I will not have it otherwise.”
His instructions, however, stood in contrast with much of Virginia’s history — where in practice, and for a time even in law, only Blacks were executed for rape or attempted rape.
From 1908— when Virginia began using the electric chair and keeping execution records in a central location — to 1951, state records show that all 45 prisoners executed for rape in Virginia were Black men.
Guilt was not contested in the appeals of the Martinsville Seven’s convictions seven decades ago.
But civil-rights lawyers Oliver Hill, Martin A. Martin, SpottswoodW. Robinson and Roland D. Ealey and others used the state’s stark execution record to argue that the death penalty for rape was applied in a discriminatory manner, reserved largely if not entirely for Blacks.
David Bruck, for 16 years the director of the Virginia Capital Case Clearinghouse, said this week: “No one had ever raised a claim like this before. In that sense it was groundbreaking.”
In 1950, the Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals was not persuaded by the numbers— nor would be other courts in decades
to come— and the justices rejected discrimination arguments based on the statistics.
“The response of the courts to the appeal of the Martinsville Seven was a very extreme example of how our courts have really simply refused to face the facts about racial discrimination and the death penalty,” said Bruck.
“There may be no case where the statistics were quite as extreme as in Martinsville in 1951,” he said.
“The evidence of race-based selectivity can be as plain as the nose on your face,” Bruck added, “but if the court is not willing to face up to it, then the executions proceed— and that’s been the story ever since Martinsville.”
Rise wrote that then-Chief Justice Edward W. Hudgins of the Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals held in 1950 that although only Black defendants were being executed for rape, the court could not find “’a scintilla of evidence’” that Virginia reserved the death penalty for Blacks.
Hudgins concluded that the accusation by the attorneys was “’an abortive attempt to inject into the proceedings racial prejudice, which the trial court was careful to avoid,’” wrote Rise.
The death sentences, the court ruled, did not “depend upon the race of the accused, but upon the circumstances, aggravation and enormity of the crime proven in each case,” wrote Rise. In the justices’ unanimous opinion in the Martinsville Seven case, “one can hardly conceive of a more atrocious, amore beastly crime.”
Virginia’s history of largely imposing the death penalty for Black men in rape cases is a long one.
After Virginia became a state and until the end of the Civil
War, state law allowed only Black individuals to receive a death sentence for rape. In 1866, the legislature changed the law so that execution remained an option for both races in rape cases. It is clear, however, that at least from 1908 to 1951, only Black individuals were executed for rape.
A study in the Virginia Law Review found that in 1972, Virginia and 15 other Southern or border states still had rape as a capital crime and only in Virginia could someone also be executed for attempted rape.
In a 1977 Georgia case, the
U.S. Supreme Court barred rape as a death-eligible crime because the death penalty was a “grossly disproportionate” punishment for rape, and not on the basis of race.
The Martinsville incident occurred on the evening of Jan. 8, 1949, when a 32-year-old white woman was assaulted in a predominantly Black area of Martinsville, where she had gone to collect money owed her for clothes.
She said she was attacked near railroad tracks and then taken into woods and assaulted again. She was hospitalized for internal
injuries and emotional distress.
Seven men were arrested within two days and signed confessions: Joe Henry Hampton,
19; Frank Hairston Jr., 18; Booker T. Millner, 19; Howard Lee Hairston, 18; Francis DeSales Grayson, 37; John Clabon Taylor, 21; and James Luther Hairston, 20.
Each defendant was charged with rape and aiding and abetting rape, both crimes punishable by death at the time. Each made signed confessions of involvement, but those who testified repudiated their confession to some extent, wrote Rise.
They were tried by six allmale, all-white juries — two were tried together — that found them guilty and sentenced them to death.
Two of the persons who organized the posthumous pardon effort are Pam Hairston Chisholm, of Martinsville, who may be related to the three Hairstons who were executed, and Liz Ryan, the president & CEO of Youth First Initiative and an adjunct faculty member of the school of education at American University.
Their efforts and those of other volunteers, including law students at William & Mary, also created an associated website: https://martinsville7.org
Ryan said she first learned of the case a few years ago when she stopped in Martinsville on a trip to Danville. “I was born in Richmond and I lived in Virginia for a long time and had never heard of this case and couldn’t believe it,” she said. “I started digging into it.”
With the 70th anniversary approaching, she started contacting people in Martinsville. “It was cookie-cutter justice — all of them got the same thing,” she said.
Ryan believes a pardon should be strongly considered by Northam and that an apology for the executions be made at a minimum as “an acknowledgement that this was a miscarriage of justice.”
Chisholm, a native of Martinsville, lived in the Washington area and worked at the Library of Congress for 35 years. In 2012, she and her husband returned to Martinsville to retire.
“I’ve been working on trying to get this story mentioned on radio or [television] for 20 years,” she wrote in an email.
“Based on the research the law students did, there has never been a posthumous pardon” in Virginia, Ryan said. There appears to be no set process for seeking a posthumous pardon under Virginia law, but there is no prohibition against it, either, said Ryan.
According to a 2011 study by Stephen Greenspan, a clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of Colorado, at least 15 states and the U.S. government on 20 occasions have
granted posthumous pardons to 107 people, 12 of them executed.
One of the law students assisting Hairston and Ryan is Nick Matuszewski, president of William & Mary’s Criminal Law Society, who did legal research and helped with writing the pardon request.
He was working with Ryan on some criminal justice reform projects when he learned about the Martinsville Seven. He and second-year law student Hannah Merrill, both with the William & Mary Law School’s Innocence Project Clinic, began helping.
“When I looked into it even further, I was just astounded by the ways in which the government absolutely deprived these poor men of any due process and just put them through trials that were not credible,” Matuszewski said.
McCollum, 65, the former Richmond mayor, is the nephew of one of the seven, Booker T. Millner.
Millner was executed five years before McCollum was born. But McCollum remembers hearing about his uncle — his mother’s brother — and the rest of the Martinsville Seven from his family as he was growing up.
“We would talk about the situation and how much of an atrocity it was,” McCollum said. “It was an inspiration for me to go into law.”
McCollum said that he researched the case while he was in law school, reading all the trial transcripts and other documents. The research, he said, “Did nothing but confirm to me how wrong it was.”
“Senator [Tim] Kaine and I served together on City Council. He was mayor and I was vice mayor at the time,” McCollum said. “And when he eventually left and became governor he appointed me to the Virginia Parole Board where I was able to do additional research.”
James Grayson, 73, of Baltimore, was 2 years old when his father, Francis DeSales Grayson, was arrested. His family moved to New York City soon after the executions and eventually he moved to Baltimore.
Reached by telephone Thursday, Grayson said he believes his father was innocent. “I just want to try and set the record straight because I felt then and I feel now the same way— that he was innocent.”
“I had really thought of trying to do something about it,” he said. “But every time that I would try to bring it up, nobody knew anything about it,” he said.
In addition to McCollum, Grayson, Ryan, Chisholm, Matusewski and Merrill, other signers of the pardon request include Naomi Hodge-Muse, executive director of the NAACP in Martinsville and the Virginia State Conference of the NAACP.
The letter to Northam says: “We are writing to urge you to posthumously pardon Frank Hairston, James Hairston, Howard Lee Hairston, Booker T. Millner, John C. Taylor, Joe Hampton and Francis DeSales Grayson, collectively known as the Martinsville Seven, and to apologize on behalf of the Commonwealth of Virginia for their wrongful executions in 1951.”
“The executions of the Martinsville Seven have left a dark stain on Virginia’s history,” the letter says. “At every turn of the investigation of the crime and judicial process, the Martinsville Seven were met with bias from law enforcement and the justice system at large and provided insufficient due process,” the letter contends.