Learn more about a pioneering black lawyer

February 22, 1997


Staff Writer, Martinsburg

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. - J.R. Clifford is not well-known here, but residents this week will have a chance to learn more about the attorney who fought for equal rights for black students in the late 1800s.

It wasn't until 1954 that the Supreme Court struck down segregated schools in its landmark Brown vs. Board of Education decision, but Clifford tackled the issue in 1896.

Berkeley County Circuit Court Judge David Sanders and others have scheduled a free historical presentation on Clifford's life for Friday.

Although Clifford didn't convince the West Virginia Supreme Court that segregated schools were unconstitutional, he won a case before the court in 1898. Justices agreed it was wrong to give white students a longer school term than blacks.


Clifford also broke new ground when he became the first black to own, print and publish a newspaper. The Pioneer Press, published in Martinsburg, operated for 35 years until it was shut down in 1917, Sanders said.

Copies of the newspaper are on microfilm at West Virginia University in Morgantown.

Government officials cited postal violations in closing the paper, but some believe the paper was shut down because of Clifford's criticism of U.S. involvement in World War I, Sanders said.

"Basically they shut him down in violation of his free speech rights," said Sanders, who has researched the life of Clifford, who was born in what is now Grant County, W.Va. and educated at the Harpers Ferry Teachers Institute, otherwise known as Storer College.

Joseph Bundy will portray Clifford at the performance, which begins at 7 p.m. in the Berkeley County Courthouse.

Sanders said he began working with Bundy, a noted historian from Bluefield, W.Va., on a similar historical program offered last year at the Jefferson County Courthouse.

After the reenactment, Bundy will answer questions about Clifford as a scholar.

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