It was a balmy Friday morning (February 20, 2009), and there was an air of excitement on the West Virginia State Capital grounds. I parked my car and walked briskly to the West Virginia State Cultural Center. As I entered the building, I encountered dozens of high school students who had come to share in the event, celebrating the life and accomplishments of J. R. Clifford.
Mr. J. R. Clifford was selected by the United States Postal Service as a civil rights pioneer for The 2009 Civil Rights Pioneer Commemorative Stamp Series, released on February 21, 2009.
Who was J. R. Clifford? He was West Virginia’s first African-American attorney. A Civil War Veteran, he was a newspaper publisher, editor, and writer. In addition, he was a public school principal and teacher and a graduate of Storer College. Clifford was a civil rights pioneer and a Niagrara Movement founder. The Niagra Movement was a precursor to the establishment of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
John Robert Clifford was born in 1848, near Moorefield, West Virginia. He fought for the Union in the Civil War. He is noted for winning a landmark civil rights and education case, Williams v. Board of Education. The case was about the Tucker County School board of education that tried to reduce the public school year for African-American students from eight months to five months. The students in the “white school” continued to receive the full eight month school year. Clifford urged the teacher, Carrie Williams, to continue teaching for the whole nine months. Clifford then filed a lawsuit against the school board for her back pay.
The West Virginia Court of Appeals decided in favor of equal educational rights for African-American students in West Virginia. It is interesting to note that the case was first won in a local court. The year was 1898.
The WV Supreme Court of Appeals said: Discrimination against the colored people, because of color alone as to privileges, immunities, and equal protection, is contrary to public policy and the law of the land.
The Tucker County decision was upheld and Mrs. Williams received her three months back pay. The Court decision provided that children throughout West Virginia, regardless of race would have equal educational rights.
Now, imagine that.