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Civil Rights History

J. R. Clifford, West Virginia’s first black lawyer, who lived from 1849 to1933, is an early hero of the civil rights movement in West Virginia. Clifford won his most important civil rights case on behalf of a school teacher in the Tucker County town of Coketon -- at the head of the Blackwater Canyon!

Born in Grant County, J. R. Clifford fought in the Civil War at the age of 15. After the war, he moved to Martinsburg where he founded the Pioneer Press, West Virginia's YoungJRSalutefirst black newspaper.

In 1892, he took on the case of Mrs. Carrie Williams. Mrs. Williams was the schoolteacher at the Coketon Colored School in Coketon, WV. At that time, Mrs. Williams was told to teach the "colored" children for only five months of the year unlike the "white" children that were to be taught for eight months of the year. In a very bold move, Mrs. Williams taught for the entire 8 months and then demanded her full 8 months salary on the basis that education was to be equal.

J. R. Clifford took Williams’ case, tried it in the Tucker County Courthouse — and won! The school board appealed to the West Virginia State Supreme Court, where Clifford won again, in 1898! This was the first “separate but equal case” in the United States and was one of the initial stirrings of the burgeoning civil rights movement.

Later, J.R. Clifford along with friend William E. B. Dubois and several other African-American men banded together and formed what is now known as the Clifford Niagara Movement.

For more information on J.R. Clifford, Carrie Williams and the Clifford-Niagara Movement please visit www.jrclifford.org.

Additionally Tom Rodd, Senior Clerk for theWest Virginia Supreme Court has written a re-enactment Ellington George Reenactmentof the events surrounding the Williams case.Click here for the transcript of the play based on these historical events.