The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Northam grants posthumous pardons to the Martinsville Seven, Black men executed in 1951 for rape

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) at the Greensville Correctional Center in March 2021. On Aug. 31, Northam issued posthumous pardons to the Martinsville Seven — a group of Black men who were convicted of rape by all-White juries and executed in 1951. (Steve Helber/AP)

RICHMOND — Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam on Tuesday issued rare posthumous pardons to a group of Black men known as the Martinsville Seven, who were executed in 1951 after being convicted by all-White juries of raping a White woman.

Northam (D) met Tuesday morning with family members of the men to hear their pleas and surprised them by announcing that he already had decided to act.

The relatives broke into applause, and several covered their faces and sobbed. “Seventy years. Seventy years!” exclaimed Pamela Hairston, who has spent nearly three decades writing letters to draw attention to the case.

Northam issued “simple pardons,” which do not deal with the issue of guilt or innocence but recognize that the cases involved racial inequity and a lack of due process, his office said.

Virginia governor asked to grant posthumous pardons to seven Black men executed for 1949 rape

With that, Northam has issued more than 600 pardons since taking office in January 2018 — more than the total granted by the previous nine Virginia governors combined, according to his office.

The effort to clear a huge backlog of pardon requests is “part of Virginia being a state that rights wrongs,” Northam said in a brief interview. “We have 402 years of history and a lot of wrongs that we need to right.”

The Martinsville case became a civil rights flash point shortly after the men were arrested in January 1949.

That month, a 32-year-old White woman was walking past a group of Black men drinking by the railroad tracks in the Southside Virginia town when, she said, one of them tackled her. Over a span of about two hours, the woman testified at trial, several of the men raped her repeatedly, threatening to kill her if she screamed and dragging her into the woods after she briefly escaped.

Police quickly rounded up seven Black men and produced signed confessions. Although all seven were said to have admitted having sex or attempting to have sex with the woman, their descriptions of events differed, and all pleaded not guilty to rape charges.

Several of the men were illiterate and could not read their own confessions, and none had a lawyer present when they signed. They were convicted in just eight days by all-White juries and put to death in the electric chair in February 1951.

The case prompted protests at the White House and highlighted a vast inequity in Virginia’s criminal justice system: Between 1908 and 1951, 45 men were executed for rape and all were Black.

Years later, in 1977, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that imposing the death penalty in cases of rape amounted to cruel and unusual punishment under the Constitution.

Late last year, relatives and descendants of the executed men petitioned Northam to issue a posthumous pardon, at least the second time they had requested he do so. The families did not argue that the men were innocent but rather that they did not receive impartial justice.

“The Martinsville Seven were not given adequate due process,” the petition said. “They were sentenced to death for a crime that a white person would not have been executed for … and they were killed, by the Commonwealth, ‘simply for being black.’ ”

About 15 relatives boarded a bus at 4:30 a.m. Tuesday in Martinsville to make the four-hour trek to Richmond. Several said they had high hopes that the governor would act, but no real idea. They might have been tipped off after arriving when Clark Mercer, Northam’s chief of staff, put a yellow “Pardon Martinsville 7” sticker on his jacket lapel.

Seated at tables arranged in a U shape in a large conference room downstairs from the governor’s office near the Capitol, family members made brief statements to Northam, Secretary of the Commonwealth Kelly Thomasson and other staff members who handle clemency reviews.

James C. McCollum Jr., a former mayor of Richmond who is the nephew and great-nephew of two of the Martinsville Seven, reminded Northam that the governor had pledged to devote his term to fighting racial inequity after a blackface scandal nearly caused him to resign in 2019.

“We believe that you are built to make the changes that are necessary . . . to move Virginia into the 21st century, a century where there are greater opportunities for equity and opportunity for all Virginians,” McCollum said.

Other relatives described the pain of living under the shadow of the hasty trials and the brutal legacy of the electric chair. “I was traumatized by this incident,” said Curtis Millner, who was 9 when his cousin Booker T. Millner was put to death at age 19. “I’m looking for closure.”

Northam thanked them. “For too long in Virginia, racism and discrimination were woven into the fabric of our system,” he said. “These men were executed because they were Black and that’s not right. . . . The criminal justice system of the commonwealth of Virginia, it failed them. They did not receive due process.”

When Northam revealed that he was about to sign the pardons, some family members wept for several minutes. Northam stood and walked down the row, touching shoulders and speaking quietly to them.

He then ceremonially signed pardons for the seven men: Millner; Francis DeSales Grayson, 37; Frank Hairston Jr., 19; Howard Lee Hairston, 18; James Luther Hairston, 20; Joe Henry Hampton, 19; and John Claybon Taylor, 21.

Northam has used the pardon more than any other governor in the modern era, according to state officials. After inheriting a backlog of clemency requests, he has resolved more than 2,000 cases, granting pardons in 604 of them, Thomasson said.

In May, the state created a streamlined online portal for requesting pardons, causing an influx of new requests, Thomasson said. The backlog stands at about 2,500 cases, she said.

Northam has intervened recently in several high-profile cases. In July, he granted an absolute pardon to Bobbie Morman Jr., who served 22 years in prison for his part in a Norfolk shooting in which no one was injured. Earlier in August, he exonerated Emerson Eugene Stephens, a waterman from Reedville who spent 32 years behind bars for a murder he didn’t commit.

Earlier this year, Northam signed legislation making Virginia the first state of the former Confederacy to abolish the death penalty.

Black cemetery headstones were used as scrap. Now area leaders are ‘righting a wrong’

He helped rewrite Virginia’s constitution to guarantee Black voting rights — ‘a blessing’ 50 years ago

Celebrating the power of Juneteenth on the spot in Virginia where enslaved Africans arrived in 1619