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November 4, 1950
Black Quotidian: Everyday History in African-American Newspapers

November 4, 1950

Guest post by Bal Artis, undergraduate student at University of Richmond.

Vivian Carter Mason questioned the relationship between race and the death penalty in an article published by the New Journal and Guide­—a Norfolk, Virginia, newspaper—on November 4, 1950. “The Question of the Seven Men Standing in the Light of Virginia’s Electric Chair” used the case of “The Martinsville Seven” as a point of departure to examine the nature of justice in America and how race affected the adjudication of those deemed criminals, particularly rapists. “The Martinsville Seven” was how the media framed the seven black men arrested after Ruby Stroud Floyd accused thirteen men of raping her while she was going through an African-American neighborhood at night in Martinsville, Virginia, on January 8, 1949.120 Out of the seven black men—Frank Hairston Jr. (20), Booker T. Millner (22), James Luther Hairston (20), Howard Lee Hairston (22), John Clabon Taylor (23), Francis DeSales Grayson (38), and Joe Henry Hampton (21)–none of whom had a prior criminal record, only Grayson and Hampton were identified by Floyd as her rapist. However, after being interrogated by local officers, all of the arrested black men “confessed” to either witnessing or committing the crime and were charged with rape. After facing quick trials and quick convictions, the men—all seven of them—were sentenced to death by electric chair.

The capital punishment sentenced in the case of those seven black men followed a trend which peculiarly applied to “forty-four [other] Negroes” that had been established in Virginia since 1908. While black men were almost immediately given the death penalty in rape cases, none of the “scores and scores” of white men who committed the same crime had been sentenced to death. Mason touched on the racial and gender politics that enabled this double standard to exist in order to safeguard white masculinity. The case of the Martinsville Seven plays heavily into certain myths that exist in regard to black men; Mason claimed that the seven men were “convicted twice,” once for their alleged part in the rape of a white woman and another time for their definite blackness.

In From Lynch Mobs to the Killing State, Stephen Bright states, “The death penalty is a direct descendant of lynching and other forms of racial violence and racial oppression in America.”121 Racism is America—the very structure built on the backs of slaves owned by white men, who pilfered from the indigenous people who lived here before them. Racism translates to control, which is enabled through how, as Marvin Jones stated in his analysis of the place of race in the law, “race is not so much a category but a practice: people are raced.”122

On October 4, 2016, the Los Angeles Times published an op-ed analyzing the mythic fear of blackness as inherently criminal by deconstructing the law in regard to Duane Buck’s case. Buck, a black man sentenced to death in 1996 for the murders of two people, faced capital punishment in part due to the “defense counsel’s ‘expert’ psychologist, [who] testified that Buck’s race made him more likely to be violent in the future.”123 Myths regarding blackness have served to dehumanize, oversexualize, and subsequently criminalize black men since slavery; Jeremi Duru labels it the “Myth of the Bestial Black Man.”124  After emancipation, the frightening, chaining, and beating of “property” was no longer legal. Capital punishment functions as the contemporary legal equivalent to the spectacles for exerting control that preceded it. The Martinsville Seven were victims of that racial domination.