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Governor to meet with relatives and activists seeking posthumous pardon for Martinsville Seven
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Governor to meet with relatives and activists seeking posthumous pardon for Martinsville Seven

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Martinsville Seven

Descendants of seven Black men executed in 1951 for the rape of a white woman in Martinsville are scheduled to meet with Gov. Ralph Northam on Tuesday to discuss a posthumous pardon.

Activists first made the unusual request to Northam last year. Earlier this month the Martinsville City Council passed a resolution asking him to grant posthumous reprieves to the men, known as the "Martinsville Seven," and commute their death sentences.

The meeting is set for 10 a.m. to be followed by a press conference by the family members at the Bell Tower on Capitol Square at noon, said Liz Ryan, one of the organizers. A spokesperson for Northam did not immediately respond Wednesday for comment.

Rudy McCollum, a lawyer and former mayor of Richmond and the nephew of one of the executed men and great nephew of another, said he plans to attend. "The best possible outcome would be that the governor posthumously pardons the men themselves and apologizes on behalf of the Commonwealth to their families," he said.

Capital punishment was abolished in Virginia in March in part because of racial disparity in its use. 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.

"Under the mandates of modern jurisprudence and our nation's devotion to the principals of 'equal justice under the law,' the Martinsville Seven would, under any and all circumstances, never have been executed - without regard to their guilt or innocence," states the Martinsville resolution.

The resolution notes that posthumous pardons, reprieves and commutations have been made in states including Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Maryland, Nebraska and South Carolina, as well as by two presidents.

Doug Wilder's recollection of the "Martinsville Seven"

The 70th anniversary of the executions was in February. Four of the men were executed in the electric chair on Feb. 2 and three on Feb. 5, 1951, for the Jan. 8, 1949 rape of a 32-year-old Martinsville woman, the largest group execution for a single-victim crime in Virginia history.

The victim was assaulted in a predominantly Black area of Martinsville, where she had gone to collect money owed her for clothes. 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. Rape was a capital crime in the state at the time and they were tried, convicted and sentenced to death.

Not all of the men admitted attacking the victim. However, even aiding and abetting in a rape carried a potential death sentence at the time in Virginia. The pardon request does not argue innocence, but questions the fairness of their trials and cites the injustice of the execution of seven men for a single rape, a crime for which whites were not being executed at the time.

In the days and weeks preceding the executions, pleas for mercy flooded Richmond from around the world. There were marches and demonstrations including a vigil at Capitol Square in Richmond.

"The purpose of the meeting is to make the case in person, directly to the governor," said Liz Ryan, who has helped organize the request. "The request from last December hasn't been responded to at all. We never heard anything from the governor's office."

The date of Aug. 31 was picked, said Ryan, because it was Grayson's birthday. Two of Grayson's relatives, McCollum, a great nephew, and James Grayson of Baltimore, Grayson's son, are expected to attend.

Aside from family members, groups that have helped, such as The Martinsville Seven Initiative Inc., the Free Minds Book Club and Writing Workshop, law students and graduates from the William & Mary Law School and a delegation from Martinsville are also expected to be represented, Ryan said.

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