A new group in the area, the Martinsville Seven Initiative, is working for racial justice and equality, starting with one of the major stains on Martinsville history, the situation of the Martinsville Seven.
The Martinsville Seven also have been under the attention of Martinsville City Council, which on July 31 issued a resolution requesting the governor of Virginia grant them posthumously a commutation for their death sentences.
The Seven — Joe Henry Hampton, Howard Lee Hairston, Booker T. Millner, Frank Hairston, John Clabon, James Luther Hairston and Francis DeSales Grayson — were executed by electric chair for the 1949 rape of a 32-year-old white woman. It was the largest group execution for a single-victim crime in Virginia history.
In the days and weeks preceding the executions, pleas for mercy flooded Richmond from around the world. There were marches and demonstrations including a vigil at Capitol Square in Richmond.
The Martinsville Seven Initiative came together toward the end of 2019 and became a 501©3 organization in July 2020, said its president, Cordelia “Faye” Holland. Board members include Curtis Millner, vice president; Tonya Jones, secretary; and Natasha Jones, treasurer.
Its aim is “to challenge and attempt to rectify injustices for people of color in Martinsville and Henry County, primarily and initially the Martinsville Seven,” Holland said.
It is comprised of about 40 Black citizens of the area, she said. “Everybody’s kind of a like mind that there is systemic racism in our area that was created and fueled years ago.” The Martinsville Seven case happened 70 years ago, she said, but problems have existed since then, “and it is one of those things that have to be combatted and overcome. In our area, that is doable.”
Holland, a Martinsville tax accountant, is on the board of directors of FAHI, the Fayette Area Historical Initiative.
Though the atmosphere is much better now, “we cannot hide” the injustices of the past, she said.
“Few people know of the particulars” of the Martinsville Seven case, she said. “It hasn’t been on the forefront of recognition, and it is a very strong part of our history,” even on the national level. “People still hurt over it, and “we need closure.”
Concerns of unfairness stem from “the gravity of the trial,” Holland said. “Some of them were illiterate. They were drunk when they were interrogated. Four were under the age of 20, and their parents were not contacted.”
Some of that reconciliation would be accomplished by having the case featured in area history museums, Holland said.
“In our museums we don’t have recognition, and that’s a strong part of what we are advocating to do.” The Initiative aims to “do quite a bit more research to arrive at what we want” for exhibits, and that research would include oral histories, she said.
The men were tried and convicted in the former Henry County courthouse, which now houses the Martinsville-Henry County Historical Society and museum.
Virginia King of the Historical Society said that museum does not have anything on the Martinsville Seven now, but three things are in the works.
First, the Historical Society granted approval for “a historical marker with the Department of Human Resources, to put out in front of the courthouse;” second, “to put up a plaque or a story board in the courtroom about the significant event that took place there;” and also, to show the recording of a Zoom talk the author of a book about the Martinsville Seven gave through a Reynolds Homestead program.
King said that Joyce Staples has been helpful, as she is both on the board of the Historical Society and also part of the Martinsville Seven Initiative.
Desmond Kendrick runs the Martinsville Henry County Historical Museum at 41 E. Church St. in Uptown Maritnsville. He and the late Carl deHart opened their first museum in 1996 and moved to the present location in 2009.
“I’ve heard about it most of my life,” Kendrick said. “I probably have right much” in terms of materials about it and has heard many people “from both sides” talk about it.
The museum’s collection has several newspaper articles about it from that time period, and, he said, he thinks it has some of the court transcripts (he was speaking from home without the chance to check the museum holdings first). “It’s a sore spot on both sides,” he said. “There’s a lot of it that wasn’t told.”
People interested in visiting the museum should call him at 276-732-2155 to make an appointment, although for the near future he isn’t able to be there much because he is recuperating from a broken shoulder, he said.
The Bassett Historical Center has some materials and information on the Martinsville Seven, Holland said.
FAHI, the Fayette Area Historical Initiative, has a display on the Martinsville Seven, and seeing that display is what kicked off a Fairfax woman, Liz Ryan, to create the Martinsville 7 Project, Holland said. That is a similar organization to Martinsville Seven Initiative.
The Martinsville 7 Project
A local member of the Martinsville 7 Project is Pamela Hairston Chisholm of Martinsville. Others are Nick Matuszewski, president of William & Mary’s Criminal Law School; Hannah Merrill of the law school; Free Minds Book Club & Writing Workshop; and Ryan, who is an advocate for juvenile and adult criminal justice reform.
Its website lists its goal as “challenging injustices for people of color in Henry County, to calling attention to systematic racism, and to seeking closure for the Martinsville 7, including an exhibit to memorialize the memory of the Martinsville 7.”
It had declared Feb. 1-5 as “Martinsville 7 Week,” which included urging Gov. Ralph Northam to pardon the Martinsville 7 posthumously “for unfair trials & executions.”
That’s the same goal the local Martinsville Seven Initiative has, Holland said. Each of the two groups was working toward the same goal before realizing the other existed.
“Now we’re coexisting and working together to work to the common end: Her group, pardon for the sake of justice, and our focus is to go beyond that, of course. We want recognition in the museums, something from the state proclaiming that the whole situation was kind of a grave injustice.”
The city’s resolution asking the governor to commute the sentences reads in part, “Virginia has executed more than 1300 people since its establishment in 1607; and
“In the twentieth century, 296 of the 377 defendants executed by the state of Virginia were Black and all 45 men executed for rape were Black.”
The resolution states that Black people were struck from the pool of potential jurors on the case, and trials were single-day, “which would today be held to be unconstitutionally impermissible under the principles of modern jurisprudence.” If the cases were to be tried today, “the Martinsville Seven would, under any and all circumstances, never have been executed – without regard to their guilt or innocence.”
It says that “Posthumous pardons, reprieves, commutations or clemency have been granted” in several states and also nationally, “for such historic figures as Robert E. Lee by President Gerald Ford and Jefferson Davis by President Carter.”
It states that some “prominent individuals” such as Thurgood Marshall, Josephine Baker, Ozzie Davis and Ruby Dee spoke up during the original coverage of the Martinsville Seven case, “raising issues of equality in justice and bringing into focus the racially disparate impacts of the American criminal justice system.”
“Locally, there is no real hard history on the Martinsville Seven,” Holland said. “The fact of the stigma that exists is people have not talked about it that much, and there is so much hurt and so much stigma. The history has not been presented. History that has not been presented is history subject to repeating itself.”
Holly Kozelsky reports for the Martinsville Bulletin. She can be reached at email@example.com