Monday, February 14, 2011

Celebrating Black History Month: J. R. Clifford

West Virginia's first African-American attorney, J. R. Clifford, was born in 1848 in Williamsport, Virginia (now Grant County, West Virginia). He was also a newspaper writer, editor, and publisher, civil war veteran, and a grandfather.

Clifford brought the case of Williams v. Board of Education, which established in 1898 that African-American school children had equal rights to public education in West Virginia, over 50 years before the landmark Brown v. Board of Education would establish that principle for the rest of the nation.

When Clifford was nearly 60 years old he and W. E. B. Du Bois founded the Niagara Movement for equal rights and the end of segregation. He helped plan the movement's first meeting in Harper's Ferry at his alma mater Storer College. The Niagara Movement, named for the mighty current of Niagara Falls, was a progressive counter-movement to the non-confrontational approach to civil rights promoted by Booker T. Washington and other black leaders of the time. Niagara's principles extended to equality for all people, including suffrage for women.

Clifford's life and work is celebrated throughout West Virginia in reenactments of the Williams trial, republication of many of his writings, and public and school programs produced through the J. R. Clifford Project.

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