MARTINSVILLE, Va. (AP) — On a rainy morning people gathered for the unveiling and dedication of a marker in front of the old Henry County Courthouse uptown recognizing the Martinsville Seven.
“Here in 1949, six all-white, all-male juries convicted seven Black men of the rape of a white woman. All seven men were sentenced to death. On appeal, NAACP attorneys submitted the first petition to the U.S. Supreme Court arguing that capital punishment had been disproportionately applied against African Americans in violation of the 14th Amendment. Despite international attention and petitions for clemency, the Commonwealth of Virginia executed the men in Feb. 1951, the most executions for a rape in U.S. history. In 1977, the Supreme Court ruled that execution for rape was cruel and unusual punishment. Gov. Ralph Northam issued posthumous pardons to the Martinsville seven on 31 Aug. 2021,” the marker reads.
Martinsville Mayor Kathy Lawson greeted the gathering of over 100 people mostly under tents and umbrellas. Faye Holland, president of the Martinsville Seven Initiative spoke of a documentary that is in the works, Vice-Mayor Jennifer Bowles acknowledged her grandfather was 19 years-old when the men were arrested and is still living today and City Attorney Eric Monday noted it was befitting that it was raining noting that “finally the heavens were weeping.”
Victor Cardwell of Roanoke law firm Woods Rogers Vandeventer Black is the first Black president of the Virginia Bar Association and was chosen to be the speaker for the event. Descendants of the Seven unveiled the marker after he spoke.
Karice Luck-Brimmer of the Virginia Department of Historic Resources gave the remarks and Pastor Elder Alan Preston of Refuge Temple Ministries gave the benediction.
The old Henry County Courthouse is now the Martinsville-Henry County Heritage Center and Museum, and inside there is now a display recounting the day on Feb. 8, 1949 when Ruby Floyd, a white woman, told police she had been raped.
Francis Grayson, Frank Hairston Jr., Howard Hairston, James Hairston, Joe Hampton, Booker Millner and John Taylor, all Black men, were arrested and confessed.
The defense argued the encounter was consensual and the confessions were coerced, but all seven men were found guilty and sentenced to death.
The NAACP failed in their appeal and over a four-day period in Feb. 1951, the Martinsville Seven were put to death in the electric chair in Richmond.
The unveiling and dedication was the result of a petition by several groups, including Holland and the Martinsville Seven Initiative in Martinsville, the Virginia Bar Association who endorsed the petition, Gov. Ralph Northam who granted the pardon, Bowles for sponsoring the marker and Monday for paying for it.