In 2009, J.R. Clifford’s story was featured in The West Virginia Lawyer, with an article focused on his pioneering law career. When J.R. Clifford was growing up in pre-civil war Virginia, it was illegal to teach African-Americans to read and write, so Clifford went to Chicago for his early education. By the time he took the bar exam in 1887, Clifford had already fought for the Union, graduated from Storer College in Harpers Ferry, worked as a schoolteacher in Martinsburg, and founded a weekly newspaper. J.R. Clifford was the first African-American in West Virginia to pass the bar exam, and became the first to argue before the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals in 1896.
In the 1896 case, Clifford represented Thomas Martin, an African-American father whose children had been denied admittance to Morgan County’s white-only schools. Both Martin and Clifford would have known that segregation was the law in West Virginia at the time, but there was no “colored” school in Morgan County available as an alternative, and Clifford felt that the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution would support their case. The court rejected this argument, but that wasn’t the end of J.R. Clifford’s fight for education in West Virginia.
In 1898, Clifford was back before the State Supreme Court, arguing against Tucker County’s unequal education policies. The school year for African-American students had been cut from eight months down to five to save expenses, but no such change was made for white students in the county. Schoolteacher Carrie Williams taught the full eight months, while only getting paid for five. J.R. Clifford took her case, and sued the school board for her lost wages. The State Supreme Court sided with Carrie Williams, and Justice Marmaduke Dent wrote that the shortened school year had been “contrary to public policy and the law of the land”. This was one of the first cases to tackle racial discrimination in schools, taking place more than 50 years before the Brown v. Board of Education decision.