John Robert Clifford operated the first black newspaper in West Virginia and argued two landmark civil rights cases before the state's Supreme Court. He was also a founding member of the Niagara Movement, a national civil rights organization that predated the NAACP.
J.R. Clifford was born in Williamsport, Virginia (now West Virginia) in 1848. As a young child, Clifford worked on his father’s farm
in Virginia before heading to Chicago to attend to school, and at the age of sixteen, he left school and
enlisted as a soldier in the Civil War. Once enlisted, Clifford served in the
13th U.S. Colored Heavy Artillery
and rose to the rank of corporal. After
the war’s end, he worked as a barber before attending Storer College in Harpers
Ferry, West Virginia. After he graduated in 1875, Clifford taught at the Sumner
School in Martinsburg and was eventually promoted to principal. Acutely
aware of the social, cultural, economic, and political norms of the late nineteenth
century, Clifford started the Pioneer
Press, the first African American newspaper in West Virginia. The location
where Clifford published the Pioneer
Press was at the same location as the Martinsburg
Independent which was the successor
of Martinsburg’s first newspaper, the Berkeley Union. J. Nelson Wisner, the editor of the Union and the Independent,
instructed Clifford in law and let Clifford print the Pioneer Press in the Independent’s office from its start until 1888.
That year, Clifford purchased the Hardy
Express out of Moorefield, West Virginia, erected a building near his
residence on West Martin Street in Martinsburg, and printed the Pioneer from that location until the
paper ceased operations in 1917.
Clifford's greatest contributions came in the field of law. After studying under a white lawyer in Martinsburg, Clifford became the first African American to pass the West Virginia Bar examination. Clifford went on to argue two landmark cases before the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals. In 1896, Clifford brought the first legal challenge to the state's segregated school system. Clifford brought suit on behalf of Thomas Martin of Morgan County, requesting the admission of his children in the only school in the area--a school that had been reserved for white children. The West Virginia Supreme Court ruled the Martin children were not allowed to attend the white school but the case led to the creation of more schools for African American children.
In 1898, Clifford represented Carrie Williams, an African American teacher who was challenging the state's system of maintaining public schools for white children that met for many more days than the state's schools for black children. In Williams v. Board of Education in Tucker County, the West Virginia Supreme Court outlawed the process of operating white schools for fewer months and paying black teachers less simply because of their race.
Clifford also worked with national leaders such as W.E.B. DuBois. Along with DuBois, Clifford was one of the original founders of the Niagara Movement. This civil rights organization challenged those such as Booker T. Washington who were willing to accept some forms of segregation as part of a plan to advance black institutions and work towards gradual racial equality. Clifford was a leading force behind the decision to hold the second meeting of the new civil rights organization at Storer College in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. The group paid tribute to John Brown by walking barefoot to the place where Brown made his last stand in 1859.
Beyond breaking barriers in the profession of law in West Virginia, Clifford maintained the longest running African American newspaper in the United States, until the federal government ordered the paper to shut down because Clifford was an outspoken critic of America's involvement in World War I.
Clifford died in 1933 at the age of 85 and was buried in in the city's Mount Hope Cemetery in Martinsburg. In 1954, his remains were transferred to Arlington National Cemetery in recognition of his service during the Civil War.