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Advocates for ‘Martinsville 7’ Celebrate Surprise Pardon From Governor

People stand holding signs
Crixell Matthews
Advocates for the Martinsville Seven celebrate the group's posthumous pardon Tuesday. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

Gov. Ralph Northam granted a surprise posthumous pardon to seven Black men executed in 1951 on Tuesday. The so-called Martinsville Seven were sentenced to death by all-white, all-male juries over the 1949 rape of a white women.

The news stunned family members and advocates who expected to have to make their case to Northam when they met on Tuesday.

“I didn’t think I was gonna cry but it was so emotional,” said Pam Hairston, a possible relative of several of the men who has spent over two decades researching and lobbying on their behalf. “It was one of the best days of my life.”

The cause of the Martinsville Seven made national headlines in 1951, with NAACP attorneys defending the men on appeals. While the men initially signed confessions saying they’d raped or witnessed the rape of 32 year-old Ruby Stroud Floyd, their attornies later argued they were coerced.

Their attorneys pointed to racial disparities in the application of the death penalty; from 1908, when Virginia began keeping statewide records, to 1951, all 45 men executed by the state for rape were Black. In 1977, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the death penalty was unconsitutional in rape cases.

Virginia has executed more people than any other state since the colonial era. The deaths of the Martinsville Seven became the largest mass execution for rape in U.S. history. The General Assembly banned the death penalty earlier this year.

Speaking to reporters on Tuesday, Northam said his decision didn’t reflect the mens’ guilt or innocence but rather the lack of due process afforded in their cases.

“As we sit here in 2021, and and think about, you know, what happened — the rapid trials, the trials by juries that were all white men — it was wrong,” Northam said.

Northam has so far granted 604 pardons — more than his nine predecessors combined, according to his office.

The pardon was the culmination of organizing from groups that included the Martinsville Seven Initiative, formed in late 2019. That group successfully lobbied Martinsville City Council to pass a resolution requesting Northam grant the pardon.

Faye Holland, executive director of the group, said the case deserved more formal remembrance.

“I’ve heard some people say, ‘Why are we digging this up?’” she said at a press conference in Capitol Square. “We're not digging it up. It's been up [for] 70 years, nobody's ever did anything with it.”

Northam, who is in his final year in office, pitched the pardon as part of a broader effort to address systemic racism. He made that a focus in the wake of a February 2019 scandal over a racist photo that appeared in his medical school yearbook.

“What people need to understand is that Black oppression continues to exist here in 2021, just in a different form than slavery,” Northam said.

I cover state politics for VPM with a focus on accountability journalism. I'm a former member of NPR's 2020 elections collaborative and my work appears regularly on NPR shows. I previously covered politics and culture in Cambodia and lived pre-journalism lives as a tech writer at Google and a program manager for a youth job training program in Alameda County, California. My writing has been featured on BBC, The Washington Monthly, the South China Morning Post, and more.