West Virginia Record

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Courtroom drama honors state's first black lawyer

By The West Virginia Record | Aug 9, 2006

HARPER'S FERRY -– The story of West Virginia's first black attorney and the precedent-setting, equal-education case he won before the state Supreme Court was to be portrayed by a cast of judicial celebrities at the Niagara Movement's Centennial.

Maryland Supreme Court Chief Judge Robert Bell, former District of Columbia Court of Appeals Chief Judge Annice M. Wagner and West Virginia Supreme Court Justices Larry Starcher and Joseph Albright will appear in two performances of "J.R. Clifford and the Carrie Williams Case" Aug. 17 at the Curtis Freewill Baptist Church on the Storer College grounds. The play was written by Supreme Court senior law clerk Tom Rodd.

Judges Thomas Steptoe, David Sanders, Gray Silver and Christopher Wilkes of the Eastern Panhandle's 23rd Judicial Circuit and local children and gospel singers also were to participate.

Michael Ellington, assistant vice president for student affairs at West Virginia University, was to play the title role of John Robert "J. R" Clifford (1848-1933). Clifford fought in the Civil War as a teenager, attended Storer College, and then founded a leading African-American newspaper and practiced law in Martinsburg.

Kaethe George, executive director of the Mannette Foundation in Morgantown, was set to portray Clifford's client Carrie Williams, a black Tucker County schoolteacher.

Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates was set to be a jury foreman in one performance. Other jurors were to include Maria Lorenson, editor of The Journal in Martinsburg, and Eastern Panhandle magistrates. Charleston attorney Kitty Dooley was the narrator, as she has at performances in Charleston, Bluefield, Parsons, White Sulphur Springs, Keyser and Morgantown.

"It's really opened up a world of African-American history for me," Dooley said of the play about black activism at the turn of the century. "This is the culmination of our efforts. We are remembering this history and we are honoring it at a commemoration of an event that really was the beginning of the modern civil rights era, which resulted in the benefits we all enjoy today."

The re-enactment is based on the landmark 1898 West Virginia civil rights case, Williams v. Board of Education. Williams and Clifford filed the case after school officials shortened the term at her one-room "colored school," at the head of the Blackwater Canyon, from eight months to five months. Williams continued teaching for the full school term then sued the school board for her unpaid salary. The Tucker Circuit Court and the state Supreme Court ruled in Williams' favor, making hers the first case in U.S. history to hold against racial discrimination in school terms.

The program is part of the National Park Service's celebration of the Centennial of the Niagara Movement meeting in Harpers Ferry, the birth of the modern civil rights movement.

More information on the Niagara Movement Centennial is available on the National Park Service Web site, www.nps.gov/hafe/niagara.

For more information on the Clifford-Niagara project, call (304) 345-7663 or go to www.clifford-niagara.org.

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