The J. R. Clifford Project

This is the home page of the “J.R. Clifford Project,” operated by the West Virginia conservation group Friends of Blackwater (“FOB”).  FOB is headquartered in Tucker County, West Virginia, in the Allegheny Highlands region of the Appalachian Mountains. 

FOB works to celebrate, protect, and improve the natural and human communities of the Highlands region – and especially the Blackwater Canyon and the North Fork of the Blackwater River.  These natural wonders are a tourism and outdoor recreational mecca for local residents, and for visitors from around the world.  

The “Blackwater Hero” John Robert “J.R.” Clifford (1848-1933) was a distinguished educator, publisher, and activist.  He was also West Virginia’s first African American attorney.  In Clifford’s most famous legal case, he represented the African American school teacher Carrie Williams.  Williams taught the children of black coal miners in a one-room, segregated “colored school” in the Town of Coketon, located on the banks of the North Fork of the Blackwater.

Beginning in the 1890s, Coketon was the headquarters of a huge mining and railroad complex, employing thousands of workers and their families from around the world – including many African Americans.  Today, the mines and coke ovens in Coketon are closed, and the “Coketon Colored School” building is gone, remembered with a historical marker.. The Friends of Blackwater office is in the old Coketon company store building. 

 A large mural of Carrie Williams on the building faces the site where Williams taught penmanship to her pupils, and where J.R Clifford took up their cause, when local officials tried to cut funds for the black children’s education.  Clifford’s victory in the West Virginia Supreme Court was a major achievement for civil rights, that improved the lives of tens of thousands of children and families. 

In 2003, FOB began the J.R. Clifford Project, to tell the story of the Carrie Williams case, using “Living History” re-enactments based on court records.  Since then, thousands of people of all ages, all across West Virginia, have taken part in these community educational programs. The Project has also carried out historical research, seminars, publications, curricula, and preservation and interpretation related to Clifford’s life and era and the civil rights history of West Virginia. 

You can see much more about the Williams case and these programs on this website.   

These J.R. Clifford Project programs and projects highlight Clifford’s stalwart opposition to racism, and his commitment to democracy, justice, and education that develops the full potential of all people.  They illuminate the distinctive role that West Virginians have played in the struggle of African Americans and their allies for justice and equality.

Residents and visitors to the Allegheny Highlands alike want to experience and connect personally with local history and heritage.  Stories of courage and achievement by people like J.R. Clifford and Carrie Williams can inspire people all over the world — thanks to programs like this website.  Special thanks to the Southern Partners Fund and the Appalachia Community Fund for their support of this work. 

Friends of Blackwater believes that learning about our civil rights history and heritage, and meeting the justice challenges of today – are essential to community protection and improvement.  Please check out our site and see if you agree!

Thanks for visiting – contact us with any questions or comments!