Post Office honors WV Civil Rights Leader J.R. Clifford

J.R. Clifford, pictured left, is featured on a stamp in the new Civil Rights Pioneers series

Until about five years ago, J.R. Clifford’s contributions to the Civil Rights Movement were virtually unknown. This year Clifford is one of 12 Civil Rights pioneers honored with a stamp by the U.S. Postal Service.

Clifford was the first African American attorney in West Virginia.

He appeared before the State Supreme Court to defend a Black school teacher from Tucker County named Carrie Williams.

The school board shortened the school year in the Black schools and refused to pay William her full salary for the year.

Clifford biographer Connie Rice calls the Supreme Court’s 1898 decision forcing Tucker County’s Board of Education to pay Williams surprising.

“What he did was get equal terms for school children in all the Black schools the same as the white schools,” Rice said. “Plus equal pay for teachers at the time.”

Rice first learned about Clifford more than 10 years ago when she was researching Monongalia County’s African American history and Jim Crow segregation laws in West Virginia. Rice came across an old newspaper article about Clifford making a speech in Morgantown.

“What really surprised me was in 1895 he was invited to sit down and eat in a prominent restaurant with the white mayor and other white dignitaries,” Rice said. “And he was allowed to stay in a prominent white hotel.”

Clifford was born in 1848 in Williamsport, which is now in Grant County. He served in the Civil War and after stints as a barber and operating a writing school.

Clifford attended Storer College in Harpers Ferry and became a school teacher. For 15 years he taught and was principal of Martinsburg’s Black school.

Clifford also published a newspaper called “The Pioneer Press” and eventually became an attorney.

“He believed in constantly working to improve himself,” Rice said. “And he did.”

Clifford was also an early proponent of equal rights, often practicing what he preached.

“He absolutely refused to not be able to go into a restaurant and sit down,” Rice said. “He would go in anyway and force the issue.”

Rice said Clifford also refused to ride on segregated railroad cars and would walk five or ten miles to get where he wanted rather than ride the train.

Clifford died in 1933 and unfortunately saw Jim Crow laws become well entrenched. It was more than 30 years after his death when the Civil Rights Act became law.

Rice has been thinking a lot about what J.R. Clifford would think as she’s watched President Barack Obama take office.

“I thing he would have been really proud and overwhelmed that it actually did come true,” Rice said. “That it’d taken so long I think he would have been surprised at.”

Rice also thinks Clifford would have been amazed that he he’d made enough progress in the state of West Virginia and in the Civil Rights movement itself that the United States Postal Service decided to give him a stamp.

Rice hopes her book about Clifford will be published by the end of this year or in early 2010.

An organization called the J.R. Clifford Project is working to make more people aware of Clifford’s contribution to Civil Rights.

The Project is also developing a curriculum for middle and high school to teach students about Clifford’s life.

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