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J.R. Clifford Historic Marker

Historic Sites, Monuments, Landmarks, and Public Art ()


John Robert Clifford operated the first black newspaper in West Virginia and argued two landmark civil rights cases before the state's Supreme Court. He was also a founding member of the Niagara Movement, a national civil rights organization that predated the NAACP.

Postal stamp in 2009 honoring Black Pioneers in America showing J.R.Clifford.
Portrait of J.R. Clifford as principal of Sumner School.


J.R. Clifford was born in Williamsport in 1848. He served the Union in the Civil War and later became a local educator, teaching other African Americans to write. Upon graduating from Storer College in 1875, Clifford accepted a teaching position at Martinsburg's Sumner School. He would later be promoted to principal.

While teaching at Sumner, Clifford started the state's first black newspaper, the Pioneer Press. The federal government ordered Clifford to stop printing the paper after Clifford criticized the government's decision to enter World War I. 

Clifford's greatest contributions came in the field of law . After studying under a white lawyer in Martinsburg, Clifford became the first African American to pass the  West Virginia Bar  examination. Clifford went on to argue two landmark cases before the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals. In 1896, Clifford brought the first legal challenge to the state's segregated school system. Clifford brought suit on behalf of Thomas Martin of Morgan County, requesting the admission of his children in the only school in the area--a school that had been reserved for white children. The West Virginia Supreme Court ruled the Martin children were not allowed to attend the white school but the case led to the creation of more schools for African American children. 

In 1898, Clifford represented Carrie Williams, an African American teacher who was challenging the state's system of maintaining public schools for white children that met for many more days than the state's schools for black children. In Williams v. Board of Education in Tucker County, the West Virginia Supreme Court outlawed the process of operating white schools for fewer months and paying black teachers less simply because of their race.  

Clifford also worked with national leaders such as W.E.B. DuBois. Working with DuBois, Clifford was one of the original founders of the Niagara Movement. This civil rights organization challenged those such as Booker T. Washington who were willing to accept some forms of segregation as part of a plan to advance black institutions and work towards gradual racial equality. Clifford was a leading force behind the decision to hold the second meeting of the new civil rights organization at Storer College in Harper's Ferry, West Virginia. The group paid tribute to John Brown by walking barefoot to the place where Brown made his last stand in 1859. 

Clifford died in 1933 at the age of 85 and was buried in in the city's Mount Hope Cemetery in Martinsburg. In 1954, his remains were transferred to Arlington National Cemetery in recognition of his service during the Civil War.


509 W Martin St
Martinsburg, WV 25401
  • African American History
This location was created on 2015-04-25 by Tyrone Pierce .   It was last updated on 2015-06-19 by Clio Admin .

This entry has been viewed 558 times within the past year


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