CHARLESTON -- West Virginia Supreme Court Justice Larry V. Starcher gave a presentation about J.R. Clifford, West Virginia's first African-American attorney and a civil rights pioneer, at the West Virginia All Black Schools Sports and Academic Hall of Fame on April 26 at the Charleston Civic Center.
Starcher also presented two awards April 27 when the first West Virginia All Black Schools Sports and Academic Hall of Fame Ceremonies were held at the Charleston Civic Center. He presented Lifetime Achievement Awards posthumously to Clifford and Joseph C. Peters. When Starcher was a college student, he met Peters and they became lifelong friends.
Peters was born in Logan County in 1925, was a graduate of West Virginia State College and received a masters in business administration from the University of Wisconsin. He served as West Virginia Commissioner of Finance and Administration, the highest budgetary post in state government. He then served 11 years as vice-president of finance at Marshall University, and retired as Division Director of the West Virginia Tax Department. He often counseled African-Americans interns at the Capitol and recommended them for advancement.
After his retirement, he was appointed to the West Virginia State College System Board of Directors and served two terms as its chairman. He then was named to the Board of Governors of Glenville State College.
In addition, for 27 years he officiated at high school and college football and basketball games. He was one of the first African-Americans to become a member of the West Virginia Football and Basketball Association.
He died at age 81 in July 2006.
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 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.
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.
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, Harpers Ferry and Huntington.