On May 23rd at the Cottrill Opera House, guest lecturer Tom Rodd told stories from notable cases in Tucker County’s legal history. The historic space of the former theater made a great venue, and we want to thank the ArtSpring team for letting us use the space.
One of the key cases covered was Williams vs. Board of Education, which centered around the Coketon Colored School, located just outside of Thomas. Carrie Williams, the teacher at the school, sued the local Board of Education over the fact that African American students were given a significantly shorter school year than white students. Williams continued to teach the full year, going without pay for three months to make sure her students got a good education and prove a point to the County. She was represented successfully by J.R. Clifford, West Virginia’s first African American attorney. The case went all the way to the state Supreme Court and set the precedent that all students in West Virginia must receive the same education, regardless of race.
As part of the presentation, the audience got to read passages from the original court decision, and were surprised by some of the progressive ideas about the importance of education and fair treatment that were around even back in the 1890s. In the past, Friends of Blackwater has put on play’s reenacting Carrie William’s trial, and some photos of those events were part of the presentation, including a couple of cameos from audience members who had participated in the reenactment in Parsons.
After a brief intermission, attendees heard about another exciting case from Tucker County’s early history, which may be more notable for actions outside the courtroom than anything said before a judge. While attending a trial in Parsons, longtime business rivals Robert Eastham and Frank Thompson got in a shootout, leaving Thompson dead. Eastham was a former confederate guerilla and one of the early settlers of Tucker County, so his ability to influence – or intimidate- people in the County made him hard to put on trial. Two juries refused to indict him, despite the many witnesses to the duel, and when he was finally found guilty, Eastham mysteriously escaped from the Parsons jail after only two months. The trial received sensationalized coverage both in the local press and some of the Virginia papers, which provides a good historical record.
At the time Thompson was considered a newcomer, a timber operator who had moved to West Virginia from Maine and built up his business through new technology and control of transport routes. Although Frank Thompson didn’t survive his feud with Robert Eastham, the Thompson family remained in Canaan Valley for many generations. Sara Fletcher, a Thompson descendant, was on hand to provide extra details for the lecture.