Pardons in the Afterlife: The "Justice" Given to the Martinville Seven

On August 31 Virginia Governor, Ralph Northam granted posthumous pardons to seven Black men accused of raping a white woman in 1951. None of them are alive to be cleared.

Joe Henry Hampton. Frank Hairston Jr. Booker T. Millner. Howard Lee Hairston. Francis DeSales Grayson. John Clabon Taylor. James Luther Hairston.

In February 1951 seven young Black men from Martinville, Virginia were executed by electric chair three days apart from each other. The first four were on February 2, 1951, the next three were on February 5, 1951. At the time of their deaths, their executions were the most executions for a crime against a single person in state history.

The “Martinville Seven” as they would come to be known as their case made national headlines, was alleged to have raped a white woman named Ruby Stroud Floyd, in 1949. The jury, which consisted solely of white men, voted to sentence the men to a death sentence despite them not receiving adequate due process and being coerced and intimidated into a confession.

Yesterday (August 31), Virginia Governor Ralph Northam issued the men posthumous pardons stating that “race played an undeniable role during the identification, investigation, conviction, and the sentencing” of the men accused of the crime. Several of the Martinville Seven’s descendants were gathered at a meeting in the governor’s office to hear Northam issue the pardon. They wept with joy. The governor felt that he was doing his part in righting a wrong.

All seven of the men have been gone from this world for seven decades under questionable circumstances.

Prior to the execution of the Martinville Seven, Virginia had executed 38 people for the crime of rape between 1908 and 1951. Every single person executed was Black. By 1977, the U.S. Supreme Court declared that rape was no longer a crime eligible for death. Governor Northam did not proclaim the pardons were an admission of innocence. He said, “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.” Governor Northam will soon be running to be re-elected as governor of Virginia. He’s running against an ultra-conservative opponent. There’s symbolism attached to the good deed of “righting the wrongs” done to Black folks that are too dead to benefit from them.

I’m sure he’s hoping that Black voters remember his righteous gesture.

It should be noted that a petition was sent to Northam’s office back in December that stated the following:

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.

It should also be noted that upon issuing the posthumous pardons, Northam said this:

These men were executed because they were Black, and that’s not right

An important historical note to consider is that upon being arrested for the alleged rape of Ruby Stroud, none of the men had lawyers present with them while they were being questioned and not all of them were able to read the confession they signed.

So, for context, what does this all mean?

Black men who were unjustly executed for a crime that was void of due process are “awarded” a pardon their corpses cannot use by a left-leaning governor seeking re-election, after being pressured by advocates and family members to reconsider the details of the case.

At the time of the case, demonstrators went nearly 300 miles north of Martinville to Washington, D.C. in efforts to get then-President Harry S. Truman to halt the execution of the Martinville Seven. Obviously, to no avail. For decades the issue of capital punishment with regards to incarcerated Black folks has been relegated to a matter of political leverage depending on what side of the equation the politician sat on, and what the temperature was around a high-profile pending execution. Truman did not view it as politically advantageous to put a federal stay on the Martinville Seven’s execution, whereas Northam apparently found it advantageous to grant a posthumous pardon.

What has consistently been left out of the equation of pardon or death is humanity and justice. Otherwise, there wouldn’t be so many Black folks dead at the hands of the state that this country has to offer apologies to that they cannot hear.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Donney Rose is a Writer, Educator, Organizer and Chief Content Editor at The North Star

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