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One hundred years ago, the West Virginia Mine Wars drew to a close as several union organizers were put on trial for treason in the aftermath of the Battle of Blair Mountain.
Recently, Shepherd University’s Center for Appalachian Studies and Communities worked with mine war museum Coal Country Tours to recognize this overlooked part of history. For the Charles Town treason trials’ 100 year anniversary, panel discussions explored their importance at the school and through a live concert featuring period songs about workers’ rights at Charles Town’s Old Opera House.
After the Battle of Blair Mountain, a notable battle fought between miners and coal companies over labor rights, over 500 union coal miners were indicted on charges of murder, conspiracy to commit murder, accessory to murder, and treason against the state. Among those charged were United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) organizers like Bill Blizzard, Frank Keeney, and Fred Mooney.
Though the conflict happened in the state’s southern coalfields, the trials themselves were moved to the other side of the state in Charles Town.
Doug Estepp, who runs Coal Country Tours, says the decision to move the trials was because the area had no prior coal mining history.
“If the trials had taken place down there, it would have probably led to fighting again or trouble at the very least,” Estepp said. “So a change of venue was granted and it was brought to Charles Town in the Eastern Panhandle, far away from the coal fields.”
The first and most publicized trial was that of Bill Blizzard, a union leader who was involved with the Battle of Blair Mountain and other disputes like the Paint Creek-Cabin Creek strike.
Chuck Keeney, great-grandson of fellow union leader Frank Keeney and history professor at Southern West Virginia Community College, says Blizzard was put on trial first because of his direct involvement at Blair Mountain. Keeney says the coal companies hoped to dismantle the UMWA by targeting notable figures.
“They were hoping that they could delegitimize the UMWA and say that the UMWA itself was a treasonous organization. And then by consequence, labor unions were treasonous organizations,” Keeney said.
Walter Allen was the only miner convicted of treason. He was granted bail but skipped out and disappeared from the region. Rev. James Wilburn and his son John were also convicted of murder after causing the first casualty at Blair Mountain. The trials eventually moved away from Charles Town during Frank Keeney’s trial, which moved twice to Morgan County and Greenbrier County before ending with no verdict.
Though most of the indicted miners were either acquitted or never tried in court, union membership dropped from around 55,000 members to under 1,000. Estepp calls the trials the final nail in the coffin for the UMWA during that period.
“The UMW was pretty much exhausted, both financially and physically after the march, the strikes, the Battle of Blair Mountain. And so what was left of the treasury was basically expended,” Estepp said.
Judge David Hammer, of the 23rd Judicial Circuit Court, says that even though the trials destroyed the union, the conflict eventually resulted in more federal protections for workers like the National Labor Relations Act and the Mine Safety and Health Act. His office is in the same courthouse where Blizzard was tried.
“So many of the concerns that were at the forefront in 1922, have actually been resolved by federal action. So looked at from that perspective, the mine wars did have a tremendously beneficial purpose,” Hammer said.
Though the trials happened a century ago, Keeney argues its legacy still matters today. He says the more West Virginia’s history is understood, the more its people can take pride in their home state.
“If you’re from West Virginia, and you’ve lived here your whole life, it’s kind of a state with an inferiority complex. And the trials themselves are trials that show people that are defiant,” Keeney said.
The Jefferson County Courthouse where the Blizzard trial was held is still intact today. Much of the courtroom still resembles what it looked like a century ago. Copies of jury lists and affidavits from the original trial are kept at the courthouse, but the original documents are stored at West Virginia University.