Seven Black Men Executed for Rape of White Woman Given Posthumous Pardons

On Tuesday, Virginia Governor Ralph Northam granted posthumous pardons to seven Black men executed under the death penalty in 1951 for the rape of a white woman, the Associated Press reported. The fate of the group, known as the "Martinsville Seven," has been the subject of outcry in recent years as many denounce racial imbalances in past uses of the death penalty.

All seven men were tried by all-white juries and found guilty of raping 32-year old Ruby Stroud Floyd, who had entered a predominantly Black neighborhood in Martinsville in 1949 to gather money for clothes she sold there, the AP reported. Northam decided to pardon the group after speaking with around a dozen advocates and descendants of the men.

In a press release, the governor acknowledged that while the pardons "can't change the past," he hopes Tuesday's action brings the men's descendants and advocates "some small measure of peace."

"This is about righting wrongs," Northam said in the release. "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.

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below.

Martinsville Seven Pardoned
Virginia Governor Ralph Northam granted posthumous pardons Tuesday, August 31, 2021 to seven Black men who were executed in 1951 for the rape of a white woman, in a case that attracted pleas for mercy from around the world and in recent years has been denounced as an example of racial disparity in the use of the death penalty. 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 in this January 30, 1951 file photo. Henry Burroughs/AP Photo

Four of the men were executed in Virginia's electric chair on Feb. 2, 1951. Three days later, the remaining three were also electrocuted. All of them were tried by all-white juries.

At the time, rape was a capital offense. But Northam said Tuesday 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.

Walter Grayson is the son of Francis DeSales Grayson, who was one of the seven. He sobbed loudly when the pardons were announced Tuesday and said "thank you, Jesus. Thank you, Lord."

In December, advocates and descendants of the men asked Northam to issue posthumous pardons. Their 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 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 advocates wrote in their letter to Northam.

The seven men, most in their late teens or early 20s, were: Grayson, Frank Hairston Jr.; Howard Lee Hairston; James Luther Hairston; Joe Henry Hampton; Booker Millner; and John Clabon Taylor.

In March, Northam, a Democrat, signed legislation passed by the Democrat-controlled legislature abolishing the state's death penalty. It was a dramatic shift for Virginia, a state that had the second-highest number of executions in the U.S. The case of the Martinsville Seven was cited during the legislative debate as an example of the disproportionate use of the death penalty against people of color.

Gov. Ralph Northam Pardons Martinsville Seven
Virginia Governor Ralph Northam on Tuesday pardoned seven Black men executed in 1951 for the rape of a white woman. Northam speaks at an event titled “Transforming Rail in Virginia” at the Amtrak-VRE station in March 30, 2021 in Alexandria, Virginia. Win McNamee/Getty Images