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W.Va. road marker honors man of many achievements

October 18, 2003|by CANDICE BOSELY

martinsburg@herald-mail.com

At 1:46 p.m. Friday, underneath cloudy skies, family members of J.R. Clifford pulled a sheet off a highway marker honoring the Martinsburg Civil War soldier, attorney, school principal, journalist and civil rights pioneer.

Although the unveiling happened right on schedule, some say the honor is long overdue. Many do not know about J.R. Clifford, who died in 1933, or what he accomplished.

"This is something that has been sitting in the middle of Martinsburg for over 100 years and people ride all around him and have no idea," said Leonard Harris, president of the Sumner-Ramer School, a former black school at which Clifford was a teacher and principal.

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Approximately 50 people attended the unveiling ceremony for the highway marker, which was placed outside Ramer Center on West Martin Street.

"What a wonderful sign. What a wonderful tribute. This history has gone unknown for too long," said Circuit Judge David Sanders.

Born in 1848 in what is now Grant County in West Virginia, Clifford fought in the Civil War while a teenager and later formed the state's first black newspaper and became the first black man to practice law in West Virginia.

In 1898, more than half a century before the more famous Brown v. Board of Education decision, Clifford won the first court case that declared racial discrimination illegal.

He represented a black teacher, Carrie Williams, who thought it unfair that white children attended school for eight months but black children attended for only five months. After she sued, justices on the state Supreme Court sided with her and ruled that school terms for white and black students should be the same length.

After the ceremony, many people went inside the Ramer Center and roamed throughout a museum about the school. The only known picture of Clifford is on display.

Former students Christine Logan, class of 1957, and Rosabell Roman, who graduated in 1955, found themselves in old black and white photographs and pointed each out to the other.

Although the school has changed, Logan said it was a pleasure to return.

Roman was supposed to graduate in 1945, but quit school to get married. She returned and earned her diploma a decade later.

She remembers walking through sun, rain and snow to the school from the north end of town, passing a white school to which students could ride a bus.

Pounding the pavement may have formed an unbreakable bond.

"It was a very close-knit school," she said.

Clifford would be proud of the strides made in equality if he were alive today, Harris said, but would probably continue to strive for change.

"A lot of things that J.R. Clifford fought for, even though this is 2003, there is still a lot of room for improvement," he said.

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