Clifford, who was born in 1848 and passed away in 1933 was a colorful figure in any age. A West Virginia native and a Civil War era veteran he was also a prominent journalist and newspaper publisher and is noted as West Virginia’s first African-American attorney. He was also a professional educator working both as a schoolteacher, and principal. Clifford was a true civil rights pioneer and was a founding member of the Niagara Movement, which was a forerunner to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
Ironically, Clifford was an historical figure who was largely lost to history! His contributions to American life were revealed by Dr. Connie Park Rice of West Virginia University in her book "Don't Flinch Nor Yield An Inch."
Dionne Bartley, Director of Appalachian Center for Equality discussed J.R. Clifford's legacy and the J.R. Clifford Project, a reenactment of one of Clifford's major courtroom triumphs which will feature cast members from the Aracoma Story Inc. as well as some familiar faces from the Logan County Courthouse — local judges and attorneys will take parts in the play.
In 1898, Clifford won Williams verses Board of Education, a landmark civil rights and education case argued before the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals. The Tucker County Board of Education's decided to shorten the school year for African-American school children from nine months to five months, while keeping a full term for white students. Teacher Carrie Williams approached Clifford, who encouraged her to continue teaching for the full nine months, regardless of funding. Clifford then filed a lawsuit against the school board for Williams' back pay. Clifford won the case at a jury trial, and then won again before the WV Supreme Court of Appeals. The Court's decision bolstered equal educational rights for African-American students statewide. The case occurred over fifty years before the "Brown v. Board of Education" case.
Bartley said the play was independent of Southern's well regarded Diversity Month celebration, but noted that it was a case of synchronicity.
"J.R. Clifford got left out of the history books," Bartley said. "Yet his cases allowed blacks and whites to have equal rights and equal pay for school teachers. He was a vital part of West Virginia history as well as American history and African-American history. That is why I felt it was important to bring this project here. It is a courtroom drama that reenacts Williams verses the Board of Education."