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Clifford remembered at park's history event

February 06, 2006|by DAVE McMILLION

charlestown@herald-mail.com

HARPERS FERRY, W.Va. - J.R. Clifford was considered one of the pioneers in civil rights, but he had traits that set him apart from his contemporaries, a speaker at an African-American history month event said Sunday.

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

Clifford took on civil rights issues in the courtroom when he represented Tucker County teacher Carrie Williams in 1848.

Williams brought a case against the local board of education over the fact that white students attended school for eight months but her black students only received five months of school.

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Despite the practice, Williams taught her students another 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 local history.

The ruling marked the first time a state court ruled on an issue regarding fairness in education between races.

In his newspaper, The Pioneer Press, Clifford reflected on life during the 1800s, coming to grips with incidents like a lynching that occurred in Berkeley County, according to Connie Rice, a West Virginia University history professor who has been researching Clifford's life for more than 10 years and is writing a book about him.

"Of course, Clifford had a field day with it in his newspaper," Rice said of the lynching.

Rice spoke Sunday at Harpers Ferry National Historical Park as part of the park's history month program.

There were more than 30 lynchings in West Virginia as blacks fought for equal rights, and Rice said she is surprised that no one killed Clifford.

Rice recalled the time a mob gathered outside Charles Town, W.Va., to get Clifford and how there often were attempts to shut down his newspaper.

Rice said she figured it was efforts like Clifford's newspaper that saved him because everyone knew who his enemies were by what he wrote in the paper.

The Pioneer Press was published for 36 years and was the longest-running black newspaper at the time when Clifford stopped publishing, said Rice, who explained that Clifford was considered to be the "dean of the African-American press."

Despite its longevity, only two copies of The Pioneer Press remain, Rice said.

One of the copies was on display in the John Brown Museum building where Rice spoke. The other is owned by one of Clifford's family members, Rice said.

Several members of Clifford's family were at Sunday's event, including Freda Rolls of Keyser, W.Va.

Rolls said Clifford was her father's uncle.

"I feel real proud that he's being remembered like he is," Rolls said. "Finally."

Some feel that Clifford's life has been overlooked, but Rolls said she and her family always realized what a significant life Clifford lived.

Clifford attended Storer College, a local school that was opened for all races following the Civil War, and was instrumental in the 1906 Niagara Movement in Harpers Ferry, which set the foundation for the formation of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

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