Clifford stamp ceremony is Feb. 20 at state Capitol

By Steve Korris | Feb 16, 2009


CHARLESTON –- J.R. Clifford belongs on a postal stamp because, 111 years ago, he carved into West Virginia law the right of full education for descendants of slaves.

To win his case, he must have possessed wit and will beyond all measure.

Pleading for a 26-year-old teacher in a segregated school, he persuaded a circuit judge and the Supreme Court of Appeals to enforce her unwritten contract.

The courts awarded $139 to his client, Carrie Williams of Coketon, plus legal fees.

Clifford tried to desegregate West Virginia schools. And though he failed, the U.S. Supreme Court would echo his arguments when desegregating schools in 1954.

He created headlines in his time, and the U.S. Postal Service has returned him to front pages by issuing a Clifford stamp.

On Friday, Feb. 20, Gov. Joe Manchin will lead a Clifford celebration at the Cultural Center in Charleston. The event will start at 11:30 a.m.

Members of Clifford's family will share the stage.

Retired Supreme Court Justice Larry Starcher and Charleston attorney Kitty Dooley will narrate slides, and former legislator Arley Johnson will dramatize Clifford.

Event planner Judy Rodd said she expects 300 high school students from Kanawha and Boone counties to join the celebration.

Three teachers who created a Clifford curriculum for those students will share the stage, Rodd said.

Rodd said West Virginia University history professor Connie Rice would receive an award. Rodd said the university will publish a book by Rice about Clifford.

According to an article Rice wrote for West Virginia History magazine in 2007, Clifford's admission to the West Virginia Bar in 1887 evoked animosity.

After the Civil War, she wrote, West Virginia enacted laws against intermarriage and interracial schools.

In 1872, she wrote, the state revised its constitution to ban interracial schools.

Clifford at first expressed doubts about mixed schools, Rice wrote, but he changed his stance after seeing discrepancies in quality between white and black schools.

In 1892, the Fairfax District Board of Education in Tucker County cut its spending by trimming the black school year from eight months to five.

"More than likely board members assumed that the African American workers and their families, including Carrie Williams, would be too intimidated to protest the board's new policy," Rice wrote.

Williams refused to sign a five-month contract. On Clifford's advice, she kept school open for a full eight months.

In 1893 Clifford filed a petition against a Morgan County school board seeking to enroll children of Thomas Martin, an African American, in a white school.

He asserted that segregation violated the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Judge Boyd Faulkner of Berkeley Springs, a former Confederate captain, held that the state Constitution superseded the 14th Amendment.

At the close of the school year, Williams presented a bill for three months work. The board refused to pay.

Clifford filed suit on her behalf, but the case would not reach court for two years.

In 1895, he appealed the Martin decision. The Justices agreed to hear it in 1896.

In the Williams case, Judge Joseph Hoke ruled in her favor and ordered the board to pay her $139 plus legal fees. The board appealed.

In 1896, Clifford appeared before the Supreme Court on Martin's behalf. No African-American lawyer had argued there before.

He said the Court couldn't enforce the state Constitution's ban on mixed schools because the board failed to provide equal schools.

Like Faulkner, the Court lifted the state Constitution above the 14th Amendment.

In 1898, the Williams case reached the Supreme Court. Clifford argued that the board waived its written contract with Williams.

Board attorney C.C. Strieby argued that she had no contract, written or implied. He said she taught voluntarily for three months.

On Nov. 16, 1898, the Supreme Court upheld Hoke. The Justices ruled that the board recognized and approved Williams's work by receiving her monthly reports.

Justice Marmaduke Dent wrote that a shorter school year merely on account of color was contrary to public policy and good morals.

"If any discrimination as to education should be made, it should be favorable to, and not against, the colored people," Dent wrote.

He wrote that they were "clothed at once, without preparation, with full citizenship, in this great republic, and the power to control and guide its destinies."

He wrote that they "should be elevated by education, both morally and intellectually, that they may become exemplary citizens; otherwise the perpetuity of our free institutions may be greatly endangered."

Recently, Rice noted that "Clifford's victory forced school boards to provide equal school terms and equal pay for teachers regardless of color."

"These provisions not only attracted many black migrants from the South to the coalfields of West Virginia with the promise of a better education for their children, but they also drew well educated and well qualified black teachers into the state, forcing surrounding states to provide better pay as well," she wrote.

"At the same time, the law failed to provide equality for black pupils in the quality and quantity of facilities, materials, and administrative supervision given to white pupils. As Clifford vigorously argued, separate but equal schools were never equal."

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