One of Virginia’s darkest stories is coming to the big screen.
UVa’s Center for Politics is partnering with Charlottesville activist and executive producer Tanesha Hudson and the Martinsville 7 Initiative to right a wrong that cost seven Black men their lives for a crime they likely did not commit.
When University students and Charlottesville community members went on a pilgrimage through the South in 2018, Hudson did not expect to return carrying a disturbing Martinsville secret and the idea for her next documentary.
“The first step to telling this story is telling who the Seven were,” Hudson said. “We have to tell them in their innocence. Far too often we see that Black people are guilty before even going to court.”
The Martinsville 7 are a group of men who were accused and convicted of raping a white woman in 1949. At the old Henry County courthouse, the men sat in front of all-white, all-male juries who decided their fates.
13 accused, seven charged
On January, 1949, a white woman named Ruby Stroud Floyd accused 13 Black men of rape while she was walking through a poor Black neighborhood in Martinsville.
In response to her claims, police arrested Frank Hairston Jr. and Booker T. Millner, and soon picked up James Luther Hairston, Howard Lee Hairston, John Clabon Taylor, Francis DeSales Grayson and James Henry Hampton as additional suspects. Most of the men were between 18 and 20 years old with jobs at local furniture factories and warehouses. Grayson, 37 and a World War II veteran, was the oldest of the group.
Floyd identified only two of the seven men as her rapists, claiming she could not see the rest in the dark of the night. Police never arrested the six other Black men whom she accused.
Six separate trials were held for the single crime—two of the men decided to be tried together. By spring 1949, each of the juries decided that all seven men were guilty and recommended the death penalty in each case after a day or less of deliberation.
The NAACP launched a national campaign against the death penalties, launching the letter-writing campaigns, editorials, and local vigils. Still, former governor John S. Battle refused to grant the seven clemency.
The state executed four of the men by electrocution on February 2, 1951. The remaining three men were executed on February 5.
The Martinsville Seven is the largest group to die by execution for rape in the United States. According to an article in the Afro-American, a publication founded in 1892, “Independent investigation by responsible citizens showed that ‘confessions’ had been extorted from the men after violent maltreatment by local officials.”
Between 1900 and 1949, Virginia executed 68 Black men who were convicted of rape. During that time, no white man in the state of Virginia had been executed for rape or attempted rape, a fact that the NAACP had included in its appeal of the death sentences.
“Everything in Martinsville, that we’ve seen, mirrors the entire country,” said Glenn Crossman, Director of Programs at UVa’s Center for Politics.Justice for the 7
Faye Holland, founding owner of Holland Accounting and Tax Service and a Martinsville native, launched the Martinsville 7 Initiative in 2019 to fight for justice for the seven young men and their loved ones. That same year, the organization created a petition for the posthumous pardons of all of the men, which former Governor Ralph Northam granted in August 2021.
The Initiative now is telling the story of the group through a series of seven temporary exhibits to be displayed in various locations to spread awareness about a neglected piece of history. After installing all of the exhibits, the Martinsville 7 Initiative will establish the Martinsville 7 Center for Social Justice. The center will be a resource for gathering information with a staff of advisory attorneys to provide legal assistance to Black and other marginalized communities, Holland said. The Initiative used the posthumous pardons as the first exhibit in February, formally presenting them to the remaining family members of the Martinsville 7.
The following exhibits will include a detailed account of the incident, the sequence of the arrests, the story of the trials, nationwide protests and more.
On Aug. 27, to honor the one-year anniversary of the posthumous pardons, the city of Martinsville will honor the lives of the Seven with a commemorative plaque outside of the old Henry County courthouse. That courthouse is where the seven were convicted and sentenced to death.
A second exhibit, a memorial titled Who Were the Martinsville Seven?, also will be revealed on Aug. 27 at the Fayette Area Historical Initiative.
The remaining family members of the Martinsville Seven will speak to their experiences as descendants of victims of a racist justice system, while natives in the community will speak to the story’s secrecy for more than 70 years.
“This happened only a few years before Emmet Till. We know how America is intimidated by Black masculinity,” Hudson said. “Legal doesn’t mean right, and that’s the important message.”
Starting production this fall, the film is set to release in the spring/summer season of 2024. The collaborative is still accepting donations to contribute to the production.
Holland sees the exhibits and film as a way to tell the stories of the men who were not allowed to tell them for themselves.
“As Maya Angelou once said, ‘There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside of you,’” Holland said. “That’s what had been going on in Martinsville for 70 years.”