CHARLESTON -– West Virginia Supreme Court Justice Larry V. Starcher presented a proclamation declaring Thursday, Sept. 13, 2007, as "J.R. Clifford Day" to the officers of the West Virginia NAACP, the Mountain State Bar, and the J.R. Clifford Project.
The presentation took place the West Virginia Supreme Court Chamber. The proclamation was issued by Gov. Joe Manchin III in honor of the birthday of Clifford, West Virginia's first African-American attorney and a civil rights pioneer.
Clifford was born in 1848 in Williamsport, in what is now Grant County. He served in the Union Army during the Civil War and then attended Storer College before beginning a career as a teacher and principal. While teaching in Martinsburg he founded the Pioneer Press, West Virginia's first and longest-running African-American newspaper, and studied law. In 1887 he became the first African-American to pass the West Virginia bar examination. Clifford also worked with W.E.B. DuBois to found the Niagara Movement. Clifford died in Martinsburg in 1933 at the age of 85 and initially was buried there. His body was moved to Arlington National Cemetery in 1954.
Clifford argued two landmark cases before the West Virginia Supreme Court.
In 1896, Clifford filed the first challenge of the state's segregated school system. In Martin v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court ruled that the children of Thomas Martin, an African American father in Morgan County, could not attend a white school, even though the alternative meant they would not receive an education. The decision upheld segregation.
In 1898, Clifford represented an African American teacher from Tucker County after the county board of education reduced the school term of African-American schools from eight months to five months to save money. The teacher, Carrie Williams, continued teaching for the full eight months. When the board refused to pay her for the additional three months, Clifford took the case to court. In the Williams v. Board of Education opinion, the Supreme Court held in favor of Williams. It was the first ruling in the United States to hold that racial discrimination in school terms and teacher pay was illegal.
Starcher has worked with the West Virginia NAACP, the Mountain State Bar and the J.R. Clifford Project for the past three years to increase West Virginians' knowledge about Clifford. His senior Law Clerk, Tom Rodd, wrote a four-act play, "J.R. Clifford and the Carrie Williams Case," that has been performed in Charleston, Bluefield, Morgantown and Harpers Ferry.
The play will be performed next at 7 p.m. Oct. 16 at Marshall University's Joan C. Edwards Performing Arts Center in Huntington. The performance is free and open to the public.