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Wed, 09.13.1848

J.R. Clifford born

J.R. Clifford

*J.R. Clifford was born on this date in 1848.  He was a Black newspaper publisher, editor, writer, schoolteacher, lawyer and principal.   

John Robert ("J.R.") Clifford was born in Williamsport, in what was then Hardy County, Virginia (now in Grant County), near present-day Moorefield. Clifford's parents Isaac and Mary Clifford and grandparents were "free blacks," who had lived in that region of Virginia for several generations. There were no schools for colored children in the area. Clifford's parents sent him to Chicago to attend school, sometime in the early 1860s to be educated by J. J. Healy.  

In 1864, at the age of fifteen, Clifford enlisted in the United States Colored Troops, and served in Company F, 13th Regiment of Heavy Artillery, United States Colored Troops until 1865, having reached the rank of Corporal. At the end of the war he served as a nurse.  After the Civil War, Clifford became a barber, moved from Chicago to Zeno, Ohio where he had some family and attended writing school. In 1870 he went to Wheeling, West Virginia and operated a writing school, and from 1871 to 1873 he ran a similar school in Martin's Ferry, Ohio.

In the early 1870s he enrolled in the newly formed Storer College, created to educate the region's black population.  On December 28, 1876, in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, J. R. Clifford married seventeen-year-old Mary Elizabeth Franklin, a native of Lexington, Virginia; they would have ten children. After earning his degree in 1878, Clifford became a teacher and then the principal of, a segregated public school for blacks in Martinsburg, West Virginia. In Martinsburg, he studied law under J. Nelson Wirner and was a successful lawyer.   

In 1882, Clifford began to publish "The Pioneer Press", a newspaper that was distributed nationally to a largely African American audience. In 1884, he was elected delegate to the Republican National Convention, but several delegations withdrew their votes because he was black.  He published the newspaper until 1917; at the time it was the longest running weekly newspaper dedicated to black issues.  In 1884, Clifford was honorary commissioner of the colored department of the World Cotton Centennial, the world's fair held in New Orleans that year.  In 1887, Clifford became the first African American attorney admitted to the West Virginia State Bar.  

On November 16, 1898, Clifford won a landmark civil rights and education case before the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals. In Williams v. Board of Education, Clifford argued against the Tucker County Board of Education's decision to shorten the school year for Black school children from nine months to five months, keeping a full term for white students.  Mrs. Carrie Williams, the colored school's teacher, approached Clifford. He encouraged her to continue teaching for the full nine months, regardless of funding. Clifford then filed a lawsuit against the school board for Williams' back pay totaling $121.00.  Clifford won the case at a jury trial and then won again before the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals. The Court's decision bolstered equal educational rights for African American students statewide.  

He practiced law for forty-five years and was active in both state and national politics. Clifford was the President of the National Independent League and the first Vice-President of the American Negro Academy. Clifford was among the founders of the Niagara Movement, with other prominent African American civil rights leaders such as W. E. B. Du Bois.  In 1906, the Niagara Movement's first American meeting occurred in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. The Niagara Movement led to the formation of the NAACP a few years later and is still a cornerstone of the modern Civil Rights Movement.  Clifford's victory in the Williams case occurred over fifty years before the landmark "Brown v. Board of Education" case and was one of the few civil rights victories in a southern state's high court before the turn of the 20th century. The J. R. Clifford Project, an organization dedicated to preserving Clifford's legacy and researching his life, presents re-enactments of this trial.  

J. R. Clifford died on October 6, 1933.  He died in Martinsburg, West Virginia. His remains are buried at Arlington National Cemetery.  According to the Arlington Cemetery records, John R. Clifford was a 32nd Degree Mason, a lecturer for the Most Worshipful Prince Hall Grand Lodge of West Virginia and Past Grand Master of West Virginia.  He was among twelve pioneers of civil rights commemorated in a United States Postal Service postage stamp series in 2009. 

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Reference:

J. R. Clifford Project

Image: West Virginia Archives

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