Marshall drama, seminar to honor state's first black lawyer

By The West Virginia Record | Oct 12, 2007

HUNTINGTON -– "J.R. Clifford and the Carrie Williams Case," a free, family-friendly live courtroom drama, will take place at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 16 at the Joan C. Edwards Performing Arts Center on Marshall University's Huntington campus.

Reservations are not required and a reception will follow the performance. Music will be provided by the "Voices of Supreme" gospel choir.

The award-winning four-act dramatic program, which has played to standing-room-only audiences and garnered rave reviews in Charleston, Bluefield, Morgantown and Harpers Ferry, honors West Virginia's first black attorney, John Robert "J.R." Clifford (1848-1933).

The Huntington performance will feature a local "celebrity cast" headed by Huntington native and former House of Delegates member Arley Johnson playing Clifford. The cast also includes Marshall University President Dr. Stephen J. Kopp, state Supreme Court Justice Larry Starcher, Huntington actress Carolyn Thomas and Huntington Mayor David Felinton.

From 3 to 4:30 p.m. that same day, a symposium panel featuring five distinguished historians will discuss black history in the Mountain State in the Performing Arts Center's Francis-Booth Experimental Theatre. This program, titled the "Roots and Branches Symposium," also is free to the public.

The evening program, performed in 1890s period costume, is based on the 1898 civil rights case, Williams v. Board of Education. In the Williams case, Clifford represented Carrie Williams, a black schoolteacher at the "colored" school in Tucker County.

In 1893, Williams continued teaching after school officials shortened the term at her school from eight months to five months. Williams sued the school board for her salary for the full school term. A jury in the Tucker County Circuit Court and the West Virginia Supreme Court ruled in Williams' favor, making Williams the first case in U.S. history to hold that racial discrimination in school terms and teacher pay is against the law.

The Williams case re-enactment was first presented in April 2004 in Martinsburg as part of the State Supreme Court's celebration of the 50th anniversary of the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education decision. Ten subsequent productions have brought the program to audiences across the state.

"We are delighted to put on these entertaining and educational productions in Huntington, where so much important African American and West Virginia history has taken place," said Tom Rodd, the State Supreme Court law clerk who adapted the trial transcript for the performance. "Clifford and Williams are two of our state's great civil rights heroes, and it's wonderful to have so many people volunteer to help bring their story to life. We guarantee a good time for all."

The afternoon symposium on black history in West Virginia will feature a talk by Dr. Connie Rice of West Virginia University. Her biography of Clifford will be published by West Virginia University Press in 2008.

Also making presentations will be Marshall professors Cicero Fain and Kevin Barksdale, West Virginia State University professor Lois Lucas and Tidewater College professor Tim Konhaus.

Both programs are sponsored by Marshall University, the Mountain State Bar, the West Virginia Supreme Court and the J.R. Clifford Project.

For more information, contact Maurice Cooley, director of the Center for African American Students' Programs at Marshall University, at (304) 696-3642, or via email at

In the evening program, Carolyn Thomas will portray the schoolteacher Carrie Williams. Presiding over the trial will be Cabell Chief Circuit Judge Dan O'Hanlon. The 1896 West Virginia Supreme Court will be portrayed by Starcher, West Virginia House of Delegates Speaker Rick Thompson, Marshall University vice president for multicultural affairs Betty Cleckley and Cabell County School Superintendent William Smith.

The jury will include Huntington residents Marie Redd, Cheryl Henderson, Esq., Deborah Cooley, Marshall provost Dr. Sarah Denman, Pat Thompson Frantz, Sharon Fraizer, Esq., Rev. Samuel Moore, Kenneth E. Blue, Michael Thomas, MU Board of Governors member A. Michael Perry, Felinton, and State Senator Robert Plymale.

Children from the Huntington area will portray the children in the Tucker County colored school. Huntington lawyer Menis Ketchum, vice chair of Marshall's Board of Governors, will play the lawyer for the Tucker County school board and Dr. Kopp will play the school board president. Charleston attorney Kitty Dooley will serve as narrator, and Marshall professor Phillip Carter will officiate as bailiff.

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