Martinsville 7’ Granted Posthumous Pardons 70 Years After Their Executions

Posted on Sep 03, 2021

Virginia Governor Ralph Northam has posthumously pardoned seven young Black men who were sentenced to death by all-white juries and executed in Virginia seven decades ago on charges of raping a white woman. Following years of advocacy from family members and other advocates who pushed for gubernatorial action, Northam announced the posthumous pardons on August 31, 2021, surprising the family members and advocates who had come to the capitol expecting to personally meet with the governor to plead their case.

Northam issued separate pardons for each of the seven men (pictured) — Francis DeSales Grayson, Frank Hairston Jr., Howard Hairston, James Luther Hairston, Joe Henry Hampton, Booker T. Millner, and John Clabon Taylor. “It was one of the best days of my life,” said Pam Hairston, who is related to several of the men and has spent decades advocating on their behalf.

Acknowledging that the executions of the men, who came to be known as the “Martinsville 7,” was a product of systemic racism, Northam said, “This is about righting wrongs.”

Rudy McCollum, a former mayor of Richmond who is related to two of the men, said that “[t]his action has been long overdue for a wound for the families which can finally heal with the closure of this matter through the recognition by the commonwealth that these men were denied their due process under law solely because of the color of their skin.”

The Martinsville 7 were accused of raping a white woman in 1949 and interrogated by police without the appointment of legal counsel. Under threats that they would be released to a lynch mob, each confessed to involvement in the rape. After a succession of perfunctory trials before all-white, all-male juries, each was convicted and sentenced to death. They were executed in 1951 in the largest mass execution for rape in U.S. history.

In a January 2021 Discussions With DPIC podcast, McCollum (pictured) told DPIC Managing Director Anne Holsinger: “The purpose of lynchings, and I believe the purpose of even state action such as this, were to send a message to the Black community. … This was just one more action to send a message that if you cross the line, we are going to ensure that … the entire community recognizes that … there will be consequences.”

“I’ve heard some people say, ‘Why are we digging this up?’” said Faye Holland, the executive director of the Martinsville 7 Initiative, which has been advocating for the pardons. “We’re not digging it up. It’s been up [for] 70 years, nobody’s ever did anything with it.”

“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,” Northam’s statement read. “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. I’m grateful to the advocates and families of the Martinsville Seven for their dedication and perseverance.”

In response to the pardons, the Virginia NAACP issued a statement saying that “[d]ecades after the Commonwealth tried and executed these young men without due process, today’s long-overdue announcement is a step in the right direction towards justice.”

From 1900 until the U.S. Supreme Court prohibited the death penalty in 1977 for crimes in which no one was killed, Virginia executed 73 Black men or boys on charges of rape, attempted rape, or robbery. In that same time period, no white person was executed for any of those crimes. And in its entire history, Virginia has never executed any white man for raping a Black woman or girl.

McCollum told DPIC, “If we truly want to move forward as a society, we need to recognize that when wrongs are committed that they need to be corrected. But they can’t be corrected, unless there’s an admission.”

DPIC executive director Robert Dunham called the executions of the Martinsville 7 “a manifestation of racial terror lynching through the legal system.” “The sham trials of the Martinsville Seven in front of all-White, all-male juries epitomized the use of the death penalty as a White supremacist instrument of racial oppression and embodied the link between lynching, segregation, and the death penalty,” Dunham told UPI.

“Virginia’s abolition of the death penalty was an historic event in ending the legacy of these racial injustices going forward,” Dunham said. “But the case of the Martinsville 7 is important in another way — the pardon is a formal apology and an acknowledgment that the lives of the people who were victims of the ultimate racial oppression, their family members’ lives, and the lives of everyone in the Black community have value. Their lives matter. And the act of acknowledging this matters, too.”


Ben Paviour, Advocates for Martinsville 7’ Celebrate Surprise Pardon From Governor, Virginia Public Media, August 31, 2021; Kristina Sgueglia, 7 Black men were exe­cut­ed for an alleged rape in 1951. Decades lat­er, they’ve been par­doned, CNN, August 31, 2021; NBC12 WWBT, This is about right­ing wrongs’: Va. gov­er­nor grants posthu­mous par­don to the Martinsville 7, Jasmine Turner, August 31, 2021; Gregory S. Schneider, Northam grants posthu­mous par­dons to the Martinsville Seven, Black men exe­cut­ed in 1951 for rape, Washington Post, August 31, 2021; Bill Atkinson, Virginia Governor par­dons Martinsville Seven’ Black men exe­cut­ed for rape 70 years ago, The Progress-Index, August 31, 2021; Danielle Haynes, Virginia Gov. Northam par­dons Martinsville Seven, UPI, August 312021.

Read the exec­u­tive order par­don­ing Francis DeSales Grayson and Governor Ralph Northam’s state­ment accom­pa­ny­ing the par­dons of the Martinsville 7.