Starcher keeping memory of state's first black attorney alive

By Lawrence Smith | Oct 5, 2006

INSTITUTE – A state Supreme Court justice regaled the local chapter of national civil rights organization of his effort to bring more awareness of the state's first black attorney who had a hand in the organization's creation.

Justice Larry Starcher was the keynote speaker at the NAACP's Charleston chapter Freedom Fund banquet. Held Saturday, Sept. 30 at West Virginia State University's James C. Wilson Student Union, Starcher told the nearly 170 people in attendance of recent efforts to bring more recognition to James Robert, "J.R." Clifford, West Virginia's first person of color to be admitted to the West Virginia State Bar.

Though this endeavor has "been among the most enjoyable and pleasurable things I have done in my whole career," Starcher, 63, said had it not been for the yeoman-like efforts of West Virginia University historian Connie Rice, Clifford "would have remained in silent obscurity."

"Connie's research has developed a body of information about a man, who's not, but should be, in every West Virginia history text," Starcher said. "And some day we hope that he is there."

Since 2003, Starcher said with the help of this law clerk Tom Rodd and "good friend" Charleston attorney Katherine L. "Kitty" Dooley, efforts to raise awareness of Clifford's role in West Virginia history have paid off. The Mountain State Bar, Starcher said, is planning to donate a memorial plaque honoring Clifford to the WVU College of Law, and a historical re-enactment written by Rodd of Clifford's key role in the landmark Carrie Williams case has been performed nine times in eight West Virginia communities.

The Williams case re-enactment was performed twice earlier this year during the centennial celebration of the first American meeting of the Niagara Movement in Harper's Ferry. Without question, Starcher said, Clifford had a dominant influence on the Movement's organizer, W.E. B. DuBois, the NAACP's founder, who considered Clifford one of the "talented tenth."

"It [the NAACP], to some extent had its roots in the Niagara Movement, which was mostly the brainchild of W.E.B. DuBois," Starcher said. "And the Niagara Movement had part of its origin in a prominent West Virginian at the time, and his name was John Robert, or J. R. Clifford."

Clifford accomplishments

Born in 1848 in what is now Grant County to Isaac and Mary Kent Clifford, J. R. was moved to Chicago where he could get an education when the Virginia General Assembly threatened to deport free persons of color, Starcher said. When he was 16, Starcher said, Clifford enlisted in the 13th Heavy Artillery of the U. S. Colored Troops at Fort Nelson, Kentucky.

Upon conclusion of the War Between the States, Starcher said Clifford became the proverbial "jack-of-trades" when he, among other things, became barber, established a writing school in Wheeling to teach freed slaves to read and write, received a degree in education from Storer College –- a college for Negroes founded by abolitionists in Harper's Ferry –- and began printing the Pioneer Press. In 1887 after reading law under an attorney –- one of the ways in which someone could practice law -– Clifford would be admitted to the Bar by order of the Supreme Court.

Over a decade later, Clifford would argue the landmark Carrie Williams case before the state's high court (Williams v. Board of Education of Fairfax District, Supreme Court of Appeals of West Virginia, 31 S.E., 45 W. Va. 199). The Board appealed Tucker County Circuit Judge Joseph T. Hoke's decision granting judgment to Carrie Williams, a teacher at the colored school in Coketon, for discrimination in compensation rendered to teachers.

Coming two years after the U. S. Supreme Court's ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson (U.S. 163 U.S. 537) finding the "separate, but equal" doctrine for public facilities constitutional, the question in the Williams case hinged on whether school boards had to pay teachers in colored schools for the same 8-month term as teachers in white schools. The Court's answer was an unequivocal yes.

"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," said Judge Marmaduke Dent, who wrote the Court's opinion affirming the circuit court's decision.

Starcher portrays Dent's role in the re-enactment.

Strong character

Though Clifford gained notoriety and respect for his handling of the Williams case, Starcher said two events 20 years apart in Clifford's life demonstrates the kind of man Clifford was.

Though in 1895 the law allowed for blacks to serve on juries, Starcher said custom still prohibited them from being seated.

During the voir dire process in one case, Berkeley County Prosecutor U. S. G. Pitzer began to pummel Clifford with a paperweight in an attempt to thwart Clifford's efforts to diversify the jury.

Historical accounts, Starcher said, show that the beating Clifford took was so severe, the blood ran down into his shoes. Clifford kept the blood-stained shirt in his office, Starcher said, and later when Pitzer was a candidate for the state legislature, Clifford used it as a prop to campaign against him.

Pitzer, Starcher said, was defeated by over 1,300 votes.

Later in 1915, Starcher said Clifford boycotted the Norfolk and Western Railroad. Though no Jim Crow laws were on the books in West Virginia, Norfolk and Western had segregated facilities between Shepherdstown and Shenandoah Junction near Charles Town in Jefferson County.

If Clifford, then 67, had business in Charles Town, Starcher said he would take the train to Shepherdstown, and walk the five miles to Shenandoah Junction rather than ride in the segregated car.

"That's why I say J. R. is my kind of man," Starcher said. "I think he would be a man who could be a role model today for lawyers, educators, newspaper editors and publishers and social engineers of all sorts."

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