State Supreme Court Justice Larry Starcher, standing, briefs students and teachers at Capital High School about the life of West Virginia’s first black attorney, J.R. Clifford. Starcher was at Capital High School on May 23 to help unveil the J.R. Clifford curriculum which will be used in high school history classes statewide starting in the Fall. Capital High juniors Edward Frederick, left, and Brandye Rispress, portrayed Clifford, and Carrie Williams, respectively, in an condensed, impromptu version of play Starcher’s law clerk, Tom Rodd, wrote about a Tucker County discrimination case Clifford argued before the Court in 1898. (Photo by Lawrence Smith)
CHARLESTON – With the help of teachers from across the state, a state Supreme Court justice is hoping that future generations of school children will come to know and appreciate the contributions made by West Virginia’s first black attorney sooner than he did.
Accompanied by Charleston attorney Katherine A. “Kitty” Dooley, and Capital High School history teachers Teena Gray and Carole Greene, Justice Larry V. Starcher on Friday, May 23 unveiled the J.R. Clifford curriculum to Capital students and teachers. The curriculum, said Gray, was developed over the last eight months as part of unit she, Greene and other teachers were doing with Project Teach, a grant-funded program to provide history teachers better instructional resources.
According to Gray, Dooley approached her in September about incorporating Clifford into high school history lesson plans. Though the Clifford curriculum will initially serve as a supplement in history lessons as “the teacher sees fit,” Gray says the hope is that it will work its way into the history texts.
“What we would like to do is see him provided his proper place in history,” Gray said.
Starting in the 2008-09 school year, the curriculum will be incorporated into history classes throughout West Virginia, Gray said.
Since 2003, Starcher and Dooley have spearheaded the effort to raise awareness of Clifford, the first African-American attorney admitted to the state Bar. Among his many accomplishments was his successful argument in the Carrie Williams case.
A teacher at the school for colored children in Coketon in Tucker County, Williams, with the assistance of Clifford, filed suit against the school board alleging she was not paid for the same 8-month period as teachers at the school for whites. After an all-white, all-male jury found in Williams’ favor, the school board appealed the decision to the state Supreme Court.
The Court, which only had four members at the time, affirmed the jury’s decision. On Nov. 16, 1898, two years after the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Plessy v. Ferguson found the “separate, but equal” doctrine constitutional, Judge – as state justices were called at the time – Marmaduke Dent issued the Court’s opinion saying “Discrimination against the colored people, because of color alone, as to privileges, immunities and equal legal protection is contrary to public policy and the law of the land.”
Starcher portrays Dent in a four-act play one of his law clerks, Tom Rodd, wrote about the Williams case. The play has been conducted nearly a dozen times across the state.
During the 30-minute curriculum presentation, several Capital students performed a condensed, impromptu version of the play.
Since it had the privilege of playing host to the curriculum unveiling, Gray is hopeful the play will be performed at Capital in the Fall.
Near the conclusion of the presentation, Dooley opened the floor to questions. One student asked what lessons could be learned from Clifford’s accomplishments.
“The lesson to be learned is that if someone is not in your textbooks does not meant you shouldn’t search out for alternative stories of American history,” Dooley replied. “That’s the challenge to each of you is to find history that’s been lost, stolen or destroyed.”
That student, Sam Jones, a sophomore, said he’s looking forward to learning more about Clifford. What he’s heard already has made him rethink the possibility of studying law.
“I was thinking about going to law school,” Jones said. “I changed my mind, but hearing this made me rethink that.”