J. R. Clifford, a trailblazer in many aspects of West Virginia’s black history, and his landmark case Williams v. Board of Education of Tucker County, will be the topic of the next Archives and History after-hours lecture. Charleston attorney Tom Rodd will present the talk “J. R. Clifford and the Carrie Williams Case” on Tuesday, Feb. 7, in the Archives and History Library at the Culture Center, State Capitol Complex in Charleston. The program begins at 6 p.m.
Clifford broke new ground in education, journalism, law, and civil rights. Many of his most important contributions to black history were in the field of law. In 1887, he became the first African American to pass the West Virginia bar examination, and he argued two landmark cases before the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals, winning one in 1898.
In Williams v. Board of Education of Tucker County, the Tucker County Board of Education had reduced the school term of African-American schools from eight to five months to save money. A black teacher, Carrie Williams, consulted Clifford for advice. He suggested she continue teaching for the entire eight months, despite the fact she would not be paid. When the board refused to pay Williams for the additional three months, Clifford took the case to court. The West Virginia Supreme Court found in favor of Williams, the first ruling in U.S. history to determine that racial discrimination was illegal.
Clifford was born in Williamsport, Hardy County (present-day Grant County), in 1848. He served in the 13th U.S. Heavy Artillery during the Civil War. Clifford later attended a writing school in Wheeling and then began teaching other African Americans to write. After graduating from the Storer College normal department in 1875, he accepted a teaching position at the Sumner School in Martinsburg and was eventually promoted to principal.
In 1882, while teaching at Sumner, Clifford established the Pioneer Press. He advocated for the rights of African Americans locally and nationally, and often criticized the all-white management of Storer College. The Pioneer Press remained one of the most respected black newspapers in the nation until the federal government closed it in 1917, due to Clifford’s editorial criticisms of the United States’ involvement in World War I.
In the area of civil rights, Clifford worked with his friend, W.E.B. DuBois, to found the Niagara Movement in 1905. Participants in the Niagara Movement wanted immediate change, countering Booker T. Washington’s more conservative philosophy of working within the existing system to achieve gradual civil rights and advancement. Clifford left the Niagara Movement when it formed the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1909. Among other disagreements, he objected to the use of the word “colored” in the organization’s title.
An avid history buff for more than 30 years, Rodd is a graduate of Fairmont State University and the West Virginia University College of Law and is an assistant attorney general in the Appellate Division of the West Virginia Attorney General’s Office. He has been involved in telling Clifford’s story with Charleston attorney Kitty Dooley and Senior Supreme Court Justice Larry Starcher since 2004. Rodd’s historical play, J. R. Clifford and the Carrie Williams Case, has been seen by more than 10,000 people in audiences across West Virginia. He believes that “hearing the story of this landmark case helps people today to understand West Virginia history in a unique way. The events and characters in the story are exciting, colorful, and entertaining–and they are also inspiring.”
The Feb. 7 lecture is free and the public is invited to attend. The library will close at 5 p.m. and reopen at 5:45 p.m. for participants only.
For planning purposes, participants are encouraged to register for the workshop, but advance registration is not required to attend. To register in advance, contact Robert Taylor, archives library manager, at (304) 558-0230, ext. 163, or by e-mail at Bobby.L.Taylor@wv.gov. Participants interested in registering by e-mail should send their name, telephone number and the name and date of the session. For additional information about the workshop, contact the Archives and History Library at (304) 558-0230.
The Archives and History Library is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Monday through Wednesday, Friday and Saturday, and from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Thursday. The library is closed on Sunday.
The West Virginia Division of Culture and History is an agency within the West Virginia Department of Education and the Arts with Kay Goodwin, Cabinet Secretary. The Division, led by Commissioner Randall Reid-Smith, brings together the past, present and future through programs and services focusing on archives and history, arts, historic preservation and museums. For more information about the Division’s programs, events and sites, visit www.wvculture.org. The Division of Culture and History is an Equal Opportunity/Affirmative Action Employer.