J.R. Clifford Historic Marker
Postal stamp in 2009 honoring Black Pioneers in America showing J.R.Clifford.
Portrait of J.R. Clifford as principal of Sumner School.
John R. Clifford's residence as listed in the 1913-14 Martinsburg, WV city directory.
John R. Clifford, standing top left, L. M. Hershaw, standing center, F. H. M. Murray standing to the right, and W. E. B. DuBois seated in center. Photograph taken in 1906 at the Niagara Movement's Second Annual Meeting. Photo courtesy of West Virginia & R
Backstory and Context
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.
Martinsburg Directory, 1913-1914, Volume I. R. L. Polk & Co., Publishers. Pittsburgh: PA, 1914.Rice, Connie Park. ""Don't Flinch nor Yield an Inch": J. R. Clifford and the Struggle for Equal Rights in West Virginia." West Virginia History, New Series, 1, no. 2 (2007): 45-68.