J.R. Clifford

Aug 13th, 2011 | By | Category: Journalism & Law, Military & Exploration
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J.R. Clifford1848-1933  John Robert Clifford published the leading African American newspaper of its era, and as the first black attorney admitted to the West Virginia state bar, he won a trailblazing victory in Williams v. Board of Education that found discriminatory practices in public education illegal.

Studies in Chicago

Clifford was born in Williamsport, Virginia, in 1848, to a family of free Blacks who had inhabited the area for generations. Because the school system was segregated and there were no black schools in the region, he was sent to Chicago in the early 1860s to study. At age 15, Clifford enlisted with the United States Colored Troops and served in the Civil War from 1864 to 1865 with the 13th U.S. Heavy Artillery. Following his military service, he took courses in writing at a school in Wheeling, West Virginia, and then taught other African Americans to write in West Virginia and Ohio.

The West Virginia town of Harpers Ferry, site of the historic slave uprising of 1859, was by then home to a new school formed to serve the area’s African American population, Storer College. Clifford enrolled in the early 1870s, and graduated from Storer’s teaching department in 1875. He then taught at the Sumner School, a segregated black public school in Martinsburg, where he soon became principal, but his interests moved beyond education. In 1882, while still teaching at Sumner, Clifford established a weekly newspaper, The Pioneer Press, with a national and predominantly African American readership. He published the paper until 1917, when he was forced to close it by the federal government due to his criticisms of U.S. policy in World War I. The Press was the longest-running weekly of its time.

The law was the next object of Clifford’s interest. Under the then prevalent apprenticeship system of legal training, he studied under J. Nelson Wysner, a white attorney in Martinsburg, and became the first African American in West Virginia history to be accepted to the bar in 1887. In the course of his ensuing legal career, Clifford was associated with two significant racial discrimination cases, and brought both as far as the state Supreme Court of Appeals.

An Anti-Discrimination Pioneer

In Martin v. Board of Education, Clifford brought West Virginia’s first legal challenge of public school segregation to the Supreme Court of Appeals. The Martins were the only Blacks in a white region of the state that offered no separate school for black children. Thomas Martin, insisting on his children’s right to an education, petitioned to have them attend the local whites-only school. The court, however, ruled in 1896 that the children were not permitted to attend the white school, the consequences for their education notwithstanding. The state’s segregated schools policy, thus affirmed, would endure until the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas in 1954, which held that separate black schools were inherently unequal and, therefore, unconstitutional.

Clifford returned to the state Supreme Court in 1898 with Williams v. Board of Education of Tucker County. This case challenged discriminatory practices by the Tucker County Board of Education, which, in an effort to economize, had reduced the school year term from eight to five months for the black schools in the district, while leaving the white schools’ term unchanged. Clifford advised Carrie Williams, an African American teacher in one of those schools, to go on teaching for the full term, knowing that the Board of Education would refuse to pay her for the additional three months. He then sued the Board for back pay, and took the case to the Supreme Court. In the first anti-discrimination ruling in the history of the United States, the court found in favor of Williams.

With the development of the incipient civil rights movement, Clifford joined with his friend W.E.B. Du Bois and other activist pioneers in the formation of the Niagara Movement in 1905. This movement was a response to the theories of Booker T. Washington, another pioneer, who reasoned that the key to advancing the civil rights of African Americans was to work within the white-dominated system for incremental and gradual change. Washington’s philosophy had gained him many supporters in the white political community, and even an invitation from President Theodore Roosevelt to visit the White House. The Niagara Movement, named for its first meeting’s venue in Canada near Niagara Falls, argued for rapid and immediate change without accommodation or conciliation.

Clifford organized the second annual meeting, and the first in the United States, held in 1906 in Harpers Ferry at Storer College, his alma mater. In recognition of the 1859 revolt, participants held a vigil honoring John Brown’s uprising. The Niagara Movement, which is widely considered to have been the foundation of the modern Civil Rights Movement, eventually gave rise to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in 1909. At that point, Clifford disassociated himself from the organization, in part because he objected to the use of the word “colored” in its name.

In all, Clifford practiced law for 45 years, becoming active in politics at both the state and national level. He was the first Vice-President of the American Negro Academy, and served as President of the National Independent League. Clifford died at the age of 85 in 1933, and was initially buried in Mount Hope Cemetery in Martinsburg. His body was reinterred in Arlington National Cemetery in recognition of his Civil War service. Recent scholarly research and historical work have preserved his legacy for future generations. The J.R. Clifford Project presents re-enactments of the Williams trial, and his life and career were scrupulously detailed in the 2007 study “Don’t Flinch nor Yield an Inch” by historian Connie Park Rice. Clifford was also honored with a U.S. Postal Service stamp in 2009 as part of the Civil Rights Commemorative Stamp Series.


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