ROANOKE, Va. (WFXR) – On Jan. 8, 1949, a Martinsville woman went to a part of town with which she was not entirely familiar. The woman, who was white, headed towards a predominately Black part of town, not far from where she lived.
She crossed Highway 58 that ran behind her home and headed to the neighborhood where Ruth Pettie lived. The woman later testified in court that she was going there to collect a debt she was owed by Pettie for some secondhand clothes she had sold her.
She stopped at the home of Rosa Martin along the way. She wanted Rosa to accompany her to Pettie’s home, but Rosa was not there. So the woman asked a young boy named Charlie Martin, who was about 11 years old, to take her there instead. He agreed and the two went towards Pettie’s house together.
They passed railroad tracks along the way and observed several men along the tracks. The woman stopped to ask the men where Pettie lived. They pointed out Pettie’s house to her, and she and Charlie continued along their way.
But on the way back, the woman testified she encountered the same men again. This time, she says they called her “honey” and ran behind her and Charlie. She said that they told her not to holler and not to scream. Otherwise, she would be killed. Then, she said, she was thrown to the ground and a man, who she later identified as Joe Henry Hampton, held his hands over her mouth.
Charlie testified at trial that another man, Booker T. Millner, gave him a quarter and told him not to say anything about what he saw. He also testified that Millner gave him a knife, but he gave it back to him. Charlie said he went home and told his mother what happened, and then the police.
According to court records, police arrested seven Black men for the crime within thirty hours. The seven men were Joe Henry Hampton; Booker T. Millner; Howard Hairston; Frank Hairston, Jr.; John Taylor; James Hairston; and Francis DeSales Grayson. As the case would go on to draw national attention, the seven men would collectively become known as “The Martinsville Seven”.
All of the men, with the exception of Grayson, were in their late teens or early twenties at the time of their arrest. Grayson, the oldest, was in his mid-thirties.
Annie Hobson remembers the case well. Her parents testified at the trials. Hobson was just 11 years old back on that January night when the woman who was assaulted ran to her parents’ home for help.
“Back in those days, we just had a little latch on the door. And she fell in the door,” Hobson said. “Mama was standing there and Mama grabbed the sheets off the bed and she wrapped the lady up.”
She also remembers what the woman looked like that day.
“She was just all bruised up,” Hobson said. “She said, ‘I’ve been raped.’ That’s all the words she said. ‘I’ve been raped.’ But she didn’t name who. She just said, ‘I’ve been raped. Y’all help me. Help me.'”
Hobson’s parents didn’t own a telephone, so they took the woman to a nearby business where she could get help. Police were called to investigate. Later that night, the woman spotted two men that she believed to be two of her assailants. Police arrested the two men, who were Millner and Frank Hairston, Jr.
Though the two men initially denied involvement in the crime, both eventually signed confessions placing themselves at the scene and implicating the others. Signed confessions were also eventually obtained from the other five men.
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Signed statements of Joe Henry Hampton and John Clabon Taylor.
“The confessions weren’t illegal based on the constitutional rules at the time, but they were coercive,” said Eric Rise, an associate professor at the University of Delaware, who wrote a dissertation and book examining the case.
“Several of them did dispute details of their confessions, the ones that testified at trial,” Rise said.
Millner was one of them. At trial, he testified in part:
“I told him all about it. I told him what I had did. I told him that I didn’t have no intercourse with the lady. They kept on telling me ‘You did. You did. You know you did.”
Millner went on to say:
“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.”
While some of the men denied sexually assaulting the woman, it mattered little back in 1949. Jurors were given instructions that if they believed beyond a reasonable doubt that the crime of rape was committed by persons other than the individual defendant, “aiding and abetting the commission of the said crime” was sufficient for the defendant “to be liable to the same punishment as if he were a principal in the first degree and actually committed the crime himself.”
In quick, successive trials, the men were each convicted and ultimately sentenced to execution.
“Each of them had their own lawyer. Based on my reading of the transcripts, some put on a very vigorous defense, others were lackluster to be charitable, others were very inexperienced,” said Rise.
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) took up the case. But subsequent appeals failed and in February of 1951, the men were put to death. The first four were executed on Feb. 2, 1951, and the remaining three were executed three days later on Feb. 5, 1951.
Many say the case is seldom spoken about today, but a group of relatives and community advocates are working to change that. They argue that the punishment did not fit the crime and that the men were sentenced to death because they were Black and the victim was white. Some believe the men were innocent.
“They were wronged. The Martinsville Seven was seriously wronged by the State of Virginia,” said Faye Holland, director of the Martinsville Seven Initiative, Inc., during a virtual vigil held for the men earlier this month.
In December of last year, several relatives of the men, along with community activists and criminal justice advocates, sent a letter to Gov. Ralph Northam requesting a posthumous pardon for the men.
The letter said in part:
“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.”
Rudy McCollum, an attorney and the former mayor of Richmond, is among the signatories to that letter. McCollum is a relative of both Millner and Grayson.
“If we can make this thing happen, what it would do for family, would allow us to truly feel like we are free in this society by righting this wrong that we have lived with all of our lives,” said McCollum at the virtual vigil.
“Even today, when I hear people talk about no justice, no peace, that resonates with me emotionally,” McCollum said.
Earlier this month, the Virginia House and Senate voted to abolish the death penalty in the Commonwealth. The legislation repealing the death penalty is now headed to Northam’s desk and he is expected to sign it.
“Absolutely, in a year where the Governor is asking for the abolition of the death penalty in Virginia, it certainly would be a critical, critical first step for him to acknowledge the wrongs that have been done in the past,” said Marcy Mistrett with Campaign for Youth Justice, also speaking at this month’s virtual vigil which kicked off a week of action to remember the men and advocate for the pardon.
WFXR News reached out to the Governor’s office regarding the request for a pardon. An office spokesperson provided us 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.”
Hobson says she doesn’t believe the men should have been put to death either.
“I wish they can get it straightened out,” she said. “I don’t think they should have been electrocuted.”