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Play re-enacts civil rights case

April 13, 2004|by DAVE McMILLION

charlestown@herald-mail.com

Martinsburg, W.Va. - Some may feel that the life of J.R. Clifford has been overlooked, but at least 150 people got a crash course Monday night.

Members of the crowd squeezed into the courtroom of the Berkeley County Courthouse to hear a re-enactment of one of Clifford's most significant court cases.

Clifford was a Martinsburg resident who made history when he founded West Virginia's first black newspaper and became the first black attorney in the state.

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In 1848, Clifford represented Tucker County teacher Carrie Williams, who brought a case against that county's board of education over the fact that white students attended school for eight months a year but her black students received only five months of schooling a year.

Despite the practice, Williams taught her students an additional three months and demanded in court that she be paid $120 in wages to compensate for it.

Williams won her case at the local level and before the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals, according to Monday's re-enactment.

The ruling marked the first time a state court ruled on an issue regarding fairness in education between races, said Tom Rodd, a senior law clerk for State Supreme Court Justice Larry Starcher, who helped organize Monday's event.

The re-enactment was held in connection with the 50th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, the U.S. Supreme Court decision that ended segregation in public schools.

In Monday's play, Clifford was played by Joseph Bundy, a Bluefield, W.Va., actor who specializes in historical re-enactments, Rodd said.

Bundy's booming voice echoed in the Berkeley County Circuit Court chambers as he, in the voice of Clifford, demanded equal education opportunities for black children.

Clifford said ruling in favor of Williams would not erase all race problems in schools. As long as race divides the people of the country, "our nation's promise will not be fulfilled," Bundy said in his portrayal of Clifford. "But a decision for Mrs. Williams will be a step in the right direction."

Local attorneys, educators and other community leaders acted as characters in the play, which was written by Rodd.

Judge David Sanders portrayed a judge in the case, and Don Wood, president of the Berkeley County Historical Society, served as the court bailiff.

Martinsburg attorney Norwood Bentley, local educator Hannah Geffert and local attorney Keith Wheaton portrayed supreme court justices.

About a dozen members of Clifford's family attended the play.

A highway marker honoring the life of Clifford recently was unveiled at Sumner-Ramer School, a former black school on West Martin Street where Clifford was a teacher and principal. Clifford's black newspaper, The Pioneer Press, was printed in Martinsburg.

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