In the history of Martinsville, it was the event that nobody wanted to talk about.
On Feb. 8, 1949, a white woman, Ruby Floyd, entered a predominantly Black neighborhood in Martinsville to collect money for some items she had sold, according to a historical display in the old Henry County Courthouse in Martinsville. (The account here of events from 1949 to 1951 is taken from that display.)
Shortly thereafter, Floyd alleged to police that she had been raped. Based on Floyd’s account, police arrested seven Black men: Francis Grayson, Frank Hairston Jr., Howard Hairston, James Hairston, Joe Hampton, Booker Millner and John Taylor. All suspects signed confessions, and all admitted to being present during the incident, “but each differed as to the level of involvement of the others accused.”
Trials for the “Martinsville Seven” began in spring 1949 at the Henry County Courthouse with Judge Kennon C. Whittle presiding. The prosecution vetoed the inclusion of any African American jurors. The cases were heard by juries composed solely of white men. “The prosecution presented evidence against the accused showing that non-consensual sex took place. The defense argued that everything was consensual and that the accused were coerced by law enforcement to sign confessions that were not written by them. The ‘Seven’ also claimed the signed confessions differed from when they were signed to when they were presented in court … All of the defendants were found guilty and sentenced to death in the electric chair.”
The NAACP and the Civil Rights Congress appealed, arguing that the location of the trials influenced the jurors, that no white person had ever received capital punishment for a rape conviction, that the subjects were reportedly intoxicated during the interrogations, and that law enforcement had refused to allow legal counsel during the signing of the confessions. The appeal failed.
Between Feb. 2 and Feb. 5, 1951, all seven members of the Martinsville Seven were executed at the Virginia State Penitentiary in Richmond. “This marked the largest execution for rape in the history of the United States,” the historical display states.
Eric Monday grew up in Martinsville, where both of his parents were lawyers. He went to the University of Virginia for his undergraduate and law degrees, and returned to his hometown, where he’s the city attorney and the assistant city manager.
“If you grow up in our Black community, you don’t hear it talked about because it’s a very painful memory,” he said. “If you grow up in the white community, you don’t hear it talked about, because it’s an embarrassing event in our history. This just isn’t discussed. It’s not talked about in schools, it’s not talked about socially. And it nevertheless happened.”
But the Martinsville Seven were not forgotten.
Faye Holland, who runs a tax and accounting service in Martinsville, started the Martinsville Seven Initiative in 2019 to challenge injustice for people of color, seek closure for the Seven, and create exhibits in memory of the men. In a coalition with several other organizations, Holland’s group petitioned then-Gov. Ralph Northam for posthumous pardons.
“I originally got drawn to the project,” Holland said, “because my niece was visiting a museum in the D.C. area, and when you’re in museums, you just kind of walk around and talk to other patrons, and she was having a discussion with a gentleman. And she told him she was from Martinsville. And he was like, ‘Oh, what about the Martinsville Seven? My niece had no clue what he was talking about. She’s 28 years old. And so it just kind of hit me then that the story really, really needs to be told.”
On Aug. 31, 2021, Northam granted pardons to all seven members. “While these pardons do not address the guilt of the seven, they serve as recognition from the Commonwealth that these men were tried without adequate due process and received a racially-biased death sentence not similarly applied to white defendants,” the governor’s press release said. It also noted that “from 1908 to 1951, all 45 prisoners executed for rape in Virginia were Black men.”
The petition for pardon was endorsed by the Virginia Bar Association, Eric Monday said. Monday was on the VBA board and helped secure the endorsement.
Among the many aspects of the case that troubles Monday is the failure to change the venue despite “extremely vitriolic and incendiary coverage” in the local newspaper.
“Frankly, it’s kind of amazing that there wasn’t a lynch mob,” he said. “There wasn’t, thank God. But nevertheless, that type of coverage would have certainly tainted a local jury pool and in a modern context would have made it practically impossible to hold the trial in the local setting. Your change of venue should have absolutely occurred.”
Monday and Jennifer Bowles, Martinsville’s vice major, decided to submit a nomination for a historic marker to the Virginia Department of Historic Resources.
“Jennifer’s significantly younger than I, but both of us had spoken at various times about how, although it’s a very regrettable situation, it is the most historic event that has occurred in Martinsville, Henry County. For that very brief time back in the late ’40s and ’50s, Martinsville was the subject of international demonstrations against this miscarriage of justice all over the globe. You know, you got to talk about the bad as well as the good and your history and you have to acknowledge that it happened, and we both felt that it was very important to do so. And so while we’d been talking about it, we really kind of cemented the idea of doing it as soon as the governor’s pardon was issued.”
In December, the Department of Historic Resources approved the marker (see photo for text).
“I can’t speak for every Black resident,” Bowles said, “but for those who speak with me, they suggest that this being the governor pardoning the Martinsville Seven, and realizing that the punishment was too extreme, is somewhat finally redemption for these gentlemen. It’s not a measure of guilt or innocence. It was about the severity of the punishment. And also, the feeling that the city and the local government and the police department and all of the typical processes and procedures that you would go through was unfair. And they feel that this is finally a time that Martinsville can at least admit, hey, we could have done this differently, hey, racial prejudice was prevalent at this time, and now for the local government to acknowledge that, and our state to acknowledge that, is a huge deal, and can bring some semblance of justice to the families into our area, and all of our residents.”
Rudy McCollum, a former mayor of Richmond, is the nephew of Martinsville Seven member Booker Millner.
“It clearly is for us a relief,” he said in a phone interview from Richmond. “Because, you know, this is something that our family has had to live with, I know, for me, of course, most of my life. And it was just a travesty of justice for it to have occurred and to have gone for so long, to take seven decades for it to happen. But we are relieved, and we’re happy that there’s been some final resolution in recognizing that justice had been denied for these gentlemen.”
After 70 years, many of the people who were directly impacted have passed away. But some remain, including McCollum’s mother, Ida Millner McCollum, 87.
“She was a young teen when her young teen brother was executed,” Rudy McCollum said. “This wasn’t something that was much talked about when we were young, and to be frank with you, my mother has a difficult time talking about it even to this day.”
The marker will be placed in front of the old Henry County Courthouse. “That’s where the trial occurred,” Monday said. “And the courtroom has been completely restored. It’s exactly the way it was when the trial occurred.” Monday paid for the marker personally.
Dedication is scheduled for 11:30 a.m. Sept. 10. “Marker will probably go on the pole the day before, and will be covered until the dedication,” Monday said. The speaker will be attorney Victor Cardwell of Roanoke law firm Woods Rogers Vandeventer Black. Cardwell is the first Black president of the Virginia Bar Association.
“I do hope that this marker can be a bridge between those residents who may be feeling white guilt,” Bowles said, “and for those Black residents who have been impacted in a negative way by this. We know systemic racism is real. I do think that there are already conversations in my generation, trying to break down those barriers, and have meaningful conversations and understand that everybody has a different viewpoint. But I do think this is another step forward, another step towards progression and cohesiveness as a community as a whole. I really think that this can help stop the white-versus-black or any type of racial divide, that this is a first step towards unity, and realize that we are all citizens of Martinsville, and we all should work together and come together.”