ROANOKE, Va. (WFXR) — Seventy years ago, on Feb. 2 and Feb. 5, 1951, a total of seven Black men were executed for raping a white woman in 1949.

The seven men were Frank Hairston, Jr.; Joe Henry Hampton; James Luther Hairston; John Clabon Taylor; Francis De Sales Grayson; Howard Lee Hairston; and Booker T. Millner. They collectively became known as “The Martinsville Seven.”

All seven men were convicted and sentenced to death. But now, there’s an effort to posthumously pardon them.

The men each signed statements confessing a role in the crime to varying extents. However, some call into question the validity of the men’s confessions, most of whom were teenagers or in their early twenties at the time of their arrest.

“I told him I didn’t have no intercourse with the lady,” Millner testified at trial.

“They kept on telling me ‘You did. You did. You know you did. You know you had intercourse with that lady’. They said first I grabbed the lady which I didn’t do. Frank told him I done grabbed the lady and I threw her down. So I signed that paper and when they got over to the Stuart jail he asked me did I want to read that statement. I told him yes. He said ‘Read it and if there’s anything you didn’t say, tell me.’ So I read the statement and I asked where he said me, Frank and Howard and Joe took the lady out. I told him I didn’t say that. He said it didn’t make much difference. Just like that. I went on and signed it, signed the confession,” Millner testified in court.

In addition to questioning the confessions, some family members and criminal justice advocates argue that the trial proceedings were unfair and that the punishment for the crime too severe.

In a letter sent to Gov. Ralph Northam in December, the group writes:

“The executions of the Martinsville Seven have left a dark stain on Virginia’s history. At every turn of the investigation of the crime and judicial process, the Martinsville Seven were met with
bias from law enforcement and the justice system at large and provided insufficient due process.
There is a plethora of evidence to show that the Seven were not given the necessary due process required by law for a jury to determine—with any sense of certainty—that they were guilty of
the crime that led to their executions.”

Speaking at a virtual vigil held earlier this week, Rudy McCollum, a relative of both Millner and Grayson, said, “Before there can be redemption, there’s got to be an admission that a wrong has been committed. And even if it’s the state that’s responsible, there’s opportunity for the state to admit it was wrong and then as a result of that, to right that wrong.”

WFXR reached out to Northam’s office. A spokesperson provided us with the following statement:

“The governor is deeply appreciative of this thoughtful letter. He understands the real pain surrounding this issue, and will thoroughly review their request.”

To see the full story on the Martinsville Seven, tune into WFXR’s special, “Honoring Black History” on Feb. 24 at 7 p.m.