Mass 1951 Virginia executions insulted an emerging civil rights movement

Dale Brumfield
Jun 6 · 12 min read

On April 23, 1951, black students led by Barbara Johns at Robert Russa Moton High School in Farmville, Virginia, walked out to protest the dilapidated conditions of their school and inadvertently triggered a Civil Rights movement.

Moton High School was dramatically substandard to the more modern educational facilities enjoyed by the students’ white counterparts in economically depressed Southside Virginia. It had no indoor plumbing, no cafeteria, no gymnasium and no athletic field. A few years earlier, Prince Edward County had added several tar paper-covered plywood sheds in a laughably pathetic attempt to accommodate the over 400 students.

The walkout was a seminal moment in civil rights history. Just weeks earlier, however, another seminal Civil Rights moment occurred when seven black men, from just down the road in the city of Martinsville, who had been sentenced to death by all-white juries for the rape of a white woman, were executed in assembly-line fashion at the Virginia State Penitentiary in Richmond.

While the Moton walkout remains a positive achievement in Virginia history that led to the desegregation of public schools, the “Martinsville seven” case was a clear and unmistakable Jim Crow-style fuck you to the pivotal movement initiated by those young students. And Virginia’s racist legacy of death continues even today.

Library of Virginia

On the late afternoon of January 8, 1949, a white thirty-two-year-old wife of a local grocery store manager named Ruby Stroud Floyd walked into the “black” (east) section of the industrial town of Martinsville to collect six dollars for a suit and a pair of shoes she had recently sold to a woman named Ruth Pettie. Floyd was known to many as the “Watchtower Woman” because she frequently distributed the magazine door-to-door for the Jehovah’s Witnesses.

Floyd was not real familiar with that particular area, so she stopped at the home of Dan Gilmer to ask directions to the Pettie house. Gilmer urged her to return home since it was getting dark, and on Saturday night he claimed the locals “like to celebrate and have a nice time.” Mrs. Floyd insisted on continuing, however, and asked eleven-year-old Charlie Martin, the son of a woman she knew, to accompany her.

“Thirteen boys have raped me.”

At 7:30 p.m. Mary Wade, a black neighborhood resident, answered a knock on her door and found Ruby Floyd, beaten and bruised, wearing only a shirt, sweater, and slip. As Wade later testified in one of the trials, “There were scratches on her arms. Her clothes were kind of hanging off her and her hair tangled up … Her thighs were red-rubbed like.” Mary’s husband Jesse testified Floyd appeared nervous and “seemed to be scared to death.”

Floyd claimed she was grabbed by four men who paid Charlie Martin a quarter to disappear and keep his mouth shut. She testified that they dragged and attacked her near a secluded train track, where they were joined by three more.

Just after midnight, Martinsville Detective Murray Barrow arrested two young black men, Frank Hairston, Jr., who confessed to raping Floyd, and Booker T. Millner, who admitted that he was at the scene but denied raping the woman. Based on these confessions, another Officer, A. T. Finney, arrested James L. Hairston, Howard Lee Hairston, John C. Taylor and Francis DeSales Grayson at their homes between 3:30 and 4:00 a.m. By 7:30 a.m. the police had obtained confessions from all four, although Grayson and Howard Hairston denied raping the victim.

Early Monday morning, January 10, the police arrested the final suspect, Joe Hampton. By 10:35 a.m. Sergeant Barnes had a signed confession from each suspect, in which they admitted their part in the attack and implicated the others as well.

They were the Martinsville Seven.

From left: Booker Milner, Frank Hairston Jr., Howard L. Hairston, Joe H. Hampton, John C. Taylor, Francis Grayson and James L. Hairston. Courtesy the Feb. 1, 1951 Baltimore Afro-American

All these men were between eighteen and twenty years of age (except for Grayson, a World War II veteran who was thirty-seven, married, and the father of five) and worked as laborers in local furniture factories. All the men were from “East Martinsville,” a “colored” side of town looked on less favorably than the whiter “West Martinsville,” but none of them had serious criminal backgrounds. Hampton had earlier received a suspended sentence for grand larceny. Millner had been fined for public drunkenness and Taylor had been arrested on a minor sex charge in 1944.

Floyd immediately identified Grayson and Hampton as her rapists, but since the attack happened at night, she could not positively identify the others. By April, however, all seven men faced rape charges.

a “mob of a thousand men”

The interrogations of the men recalled the no-win situations law enforcement used at the turn of the twentieth century to entrap young black men accused of “assaulting the virtues” of young white women, who in a twisted form of “Virginia way” sexist paternalism were considered by the ruling class as being too weak or too naïve to fight back.

The modus operandi was always the same: Surround the accused with white police officers, and give them the choice of confessing and praying for mercy in the courtroom; or pleading their innocence and taking their chances with a lynch mob, which may or may not be present outside the police station.

Reverend Robert Anderson, pastor of Richmond’s Fifth Baptist Church and spiritual minister to John Taylor, told the Richmond Afro-American newspaper that he was informed of improper conduct by the Martinsville police during questioning by at least two of the defendants. Both men claimed they were seated in a chair and surrounded by several officers, while one allegedly held a night stick over their heads, telling them that if they did not admit guilt, they would be beaten to death.

Several of the men were also told by police that their companions had already confessed and implicated them, and if they did not also confess they would be handed over to a “mob of a thousand men waiting outside to [lynch] you.”

Unfortunately, Anderson was unsuccessful in getting this information to Governor John S. Battle because Battle refused to see him.

Prior to the trials, Martinsville Circuit Court judge Kennon C. Whittle — apparently mindful of the circus-like trial of the Scottsboro boys in 1931 and not wishing to repeat it — told prosecutors and defense lawyers that all the defendants “will be tried as though both parties were members of the same race. I will not have it otherwise.”

The Scottsboro Boys

The Martinsville Seven indeed bore several similarities to the case of Scottsboro Boys, who were nine black teenagers falsely accused of raping two white women aboard a train near Scottsboro, Alabama, in 1931. The trials of those young men, coupled with the two Supreme Court verdicts they produced and the international uproar over their treatment, played a prominent role in the rise of the civil rights movement that was coinciding with the Martinsville case. Although unlike Martinsville, the Scottsboro boys were eventually all exonerated.

In Martinsville, Judge Whittle may have known that since the introduction of Virginia’s electric chair in 1908, all 45 men executed for rape in Virginia were blacks convicted of attacking white women. Not one of the 808 white men convicted of rape in that same period had been executed. In fact, since 1608, no white man in Virginia convicted of rape has ever been executed.

Whittle also agreed to a defense request to hold individual trials except for Taylor and James Hairston, who agreed to be tried jointly. During jury selections, Whittle’s admonition diminished when the prosecution vetoed all potential black jurors, mostly because they opposed capital punishment.

In another foreboding similarity to Scottsboro, white male juries were to hear all six trials.

On April 18, at the request of the court-appointed defense attorneys, the Martinsville Circuit Court heard arguments on a motion for change of venue based on the contention that the defendants could not receive fair trials because a front-page article and op-ed in the April 19, 1949 Martinsville Bulletin newspaper concerning the assault were “highly inflammatory and were written for the purpose of arousing public sentiment.” Although Judge Whittle denied the motion for a change of venue, he recognized from the testimony that a key issue in the case would be “this race question.” In a pretrial meeting with counsel, Whittle expressed his regret that the case would be complicated because the defendants were black and the victim white. Nevertheless, the trial went on as planned.

Ruby Floyd testified in all six so-called assembly-line trials, sometimes for as long as forty minutes. She could positively identify only three of her supposed seven assailants, since part of the attack had taken place after nightfall. She pointed out Joe Hampton as the first attacker and positively identified DeSales Grayson as the last. She hesitated between James Hairston and Booker Millner as the second attacker, saying only that it was certainly “one of those two.” Juries also heard medical verification of Floyd’s physical injuries and testimony from local residents she had appealed to for help after the rape. Defense lawyers argued that their clients’ confessions were coerced by the local police.

seven men, seven death penalties

While all seven defendants admitted their presence at the attack, only Frank Hairston freely admitted to raping Floyd. On the stand, each of the defendants at least partially rejected his earlier confession. Some claimed that the police had written the confessions, and when they signed them, they did not notice that their own words had been changed.

While there was a noticeable absence of the prosecutorial race-baiting such as seen in the Scottsboro trial and other similar prosecutions across the South, Virginia law at the time authorized capital punishment for not just rape but also attempted rape and for aiding and abetting. Thus, all the juries convicted the young men of rape, regardless of their roles in the Stroud attack, and on May 3, 1949, they recommended the death penalty for all seven of them.

Conservative southern Virginia newspaper editorials praised the fairness of the arrests and trials. “No infringement of their rights occurred,” proclaimed the Danville Register on June 6, 1950. “The seven were tried in an atmosphere free from excitement and were represented by the ablest counsel available.”

To them, the gentlemanly fairness of the “Virginia way” had prevailed — unlike those brutes in Jerkwater, Alabama, who had given southern criminal justice a bad name.

Letter from Penitentiary Superintendent W. Smyth to Martinsville seven attorney Martin A. Martin. Library of Virginia.

After the convictions, the men were represented in the appellate process by Richmond civil rights attorneys led by Martin A. Martin and Oliver Hill. In requesting some execution statistics from the penitentiary, Martin received verification from Superintendent W.F. Smyth Jr. that they had combed through 51,780 inmate records dating back to January 1, 1908, and replied, “No white person has ever been electrocuted in Virginia for the crime of rape; or attempted rape.”

It was the most damning statistic ever to fly under the radar.

While the punishments reserved for white rapists of white women were much slighter by comparison (never execution), the punishments for white men raping black women in Virginia were barely slaps on the wrist. In January 1947, two white Richmond policemen — Carl Burleson and Leonard Davis — were convicted of raping a thirty-two-year-old black woman named Strayhorn in the rear of their patrol car on a dead-end street. They were sentenced to seven years in the penitentiary.

The October 16, 1948 Norfolk Journal and Guide reported that a white farmer in Amherst County, Corbett Witt, raped a pregnant nineteen-year-old black woman. He was found guilty and only fined $350.

Even more egregious was the rape of a “feeble-minded colored woman,” by Murrel Dudley, a white man, near Glasgow, Virginia, on August 29, 1948. According to the Norfolk Journal, Dudley was found guilty and fined a mere $20.

A white man fined $20 for the rape of a black woman.

Martin confronted this staggering bias head-on: “The prime reason [these men] were sentenced to the electric chair was because all of them are colored and the prosecutrix was a white woman and the juries were composed of all white men.”

Governor John S. Battle was indifferent to these startling statistics in the clemency petition, writing, “No fair minded person can read the evidence in these cases without being convinced, beyond the shadow of a doubt, of the guilt of all the defendants.” Battle in this statement misses the point — Martin and his associates were not trying to exonerate the seven men, but only see that justice was fairly applied, and that these black men would receive similar punishments under the law as white men convicted of the same crime.

Appeals were also rejected by the Virginia Supreme Court, and the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the case. Coming at the earliest beginnings of the civil rights movement, the Martinsville case was becoming a stark reminder of the excessive punishments still reserved for blacks who violated entrenched southern racial codes. Nothing had changed.

Telegram to Gov. Battle from New Yorker cover artist Arthur Getz. Library of Virginia

Richmond was deluged by thousands of telegrams to stop the executions, including one from Russia signed by numerous Russian writers and artists, including film director Grigori Alexandrov and composers Dimitri Shostakovich and Sergei Prokofiev, expressing “deepest indignation at this act of infamy and brutality inspired by race hatred.” Many letters — especially from northern states — warned Governor Battle that he was doing a grave disservice to Virginia and southern racial justice by allowing the executions to move forward. Charged terms such as “legal lynching” and “Jim Crow justice” proliferated.

Even in capital punishment, the white man goes first

Whites protest in front of the White House, Feb. 1, 1951

On February 2, 1951, at 8:04 a.m., George Hailey, a white Halifax County man convicted of raping and murdering a twelve-year-old girl — who had nothing to do with the Martinsville cases — was executed first in a grisly uninterrupted sequence of five executions, proving that even in death, the white man still goes first. Hailey fought the guards all the way from his cell and even while he was strapped in the chair.

Joe Hampton, in stark contrast to Hailey, was solemn and composed. His last words were “Everything’s all right. We’ll see you on the other side.” Declared dead at 8:12 a.m., he was followed by Howard Hairston at 8:22 a.m., who required a second charge to kill him. Booker Milner was dead by 8:29 a.m., and finally, Frank Hairston was dead by 9:05 a.m.

The final three defendants were scheduled for execution February 5. Meanwhile, Governor Battle received many more letters and telegrams, including a particularly vicious one allegedly from the National Negro Congress, a Chicago-based activist group that stated, in part, “You white sons of bitches will suffer for crucifying these innocent boys … Soon the glorious Negro race will revolt and rule in your place and you will be strung up from the Courthouse flagpole and your carkass [sic] thrown to the dogs. YOU MUST DIE!!” It was signed, “Booker Carver Washington III, Grand and Imperial Regent.”

On February 5, John Taylor went to the chair at 7:35 a.m. He was followed by James Hairston, who, like his brother, needed a second charge, and then Francis Grayson. All three were dead by 8:15 a.m.

On March 1, 1960, a bill introduced in the General Assembly to abolish the death penalty was soundly defeated. But two years later, with support for the death penalty at an all-time low, a moratorium was declared and for the first time since 1608, Virginia stopped executing — right around the same time of the Richmond Civil Rights protests that finally desegregated the Commonwealth’s lunch counters.

But in 1982, acting on a 1976 Supreme Court judgment, Virginia resumed their “carnivals of death” by electrocuting Frank Coppola. One hundred twelve more have gone since.

Virginia’s legacy of death continues.

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Portions of this story appear in my book Virginia State Penitentiary: a Notorious History.

Read more at www.dalebrumfield.net. New novel Naked Savages now available worldwide.

Lessons from History

Lessons from History is a platform for writers who share ideas and inspirational stories from world history. The objective is to promote history on Medium and demonstrate the value of historical writing.

Dale Brumfield

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I am an anti-death penalty advocate, cultural archaeologist, “American Grotesk” journalist and author of 9 books. More at www.dalebrumfield.net.

Lessons from History

Lessons from History is a platform for writers who share ideas and inspirational stories from world history. The objective is to promote history on Medium and demonstrate the value of historical writing.

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