J.R. Clifford was one of many soldiers to pass through Camp Nelson during the Civil War. Originally created as a Union supply depot and hospital in Kentucky, Camp Nelson became a recruitment and training center for African American soldiers. It is likely that over 10,000 African American recruits were trained at Camp Nelson.
Unlike white recruits, many of the soldiers who came to Camp Nelson were essentially fugitives, having escaped from slavery to join the Union. The Union army offered the security of legal emancipation in return for military service, a deal that was expanded to include soldier’s families as well. As a result, thousands of the soldiers’ family members ended up in the area around Camp Nelson. Despite the efforts of missionaries to offer education and religious services at Camp Nelson, the families were in a refugee camp and quality of life was not high. There was no military policy governing soldiers’ families in these circumstances, and they frequently faced the threat of eviction.
Today Camp Nelson is a National Monument. Although few of the original buildings survived intact, the site of the camp is still preserved, and there is a museum and reconstructions of some of the original buildings.
The second meeting of the Niagara Movement was held August 15-19, 1906 at Storer College in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. The meeting was attended by J.R. Clifford, as well as other African American luminaries of the era, including W.E.B. Dubois.
The Niagara Movement was founded by Dubois and named for the location of its first meeting – near Niagara Falls in Ontario. The movement was Dubois reaction to the slow rate of progress being made on civil rights in the early 1900s. He called for “organized determination and aggressive action on the part of men who believe in Negro freedom and growth”.
While some prominent African Americans like Booker T. Washington preached political accommodation, advancing the cause of equality in a way that didn’t upset white people, attendees at the Niagara Movement meeting wanted total equality, with no concessions based on race or gender. Women attending the meeting were granted full and equal membership in the movement. Speeches, meetings, and special programs took place throughout the week, culminating with a resolution from the members.
We want full suffrage, now, henceforth and forever.
We want discrimination in public accommodations to cease. Separation is un-American, undemocratic and silly.
We claim the right of freemen to walk, talk, and be with them who wish to be with us.
We want the laws enforced equally…against white as well as black.
We want our children educated…Either the U.S. will destroy ignorance or ignorance will destroy the U.S.
We will not be satisfied to take one jot or title less than our full rights. We claim for ourselves every single right that belongs to a freeborn American – political, civil, and social; and until we get these rights, we will never cease to protest and assail the ears of America. The battle we wage is not for ourselves alone, but for all true Americans.
The DuBois High School in Fayette County was established in 1917 to serve African-American students during the era of segregation in West Virginia. Despite the fact that the school had less space and less up-to-date teaching materials than the white high school, teachers still did their best to make sure that students received a good education. Students took pride in their school, the band, the football team, and more.
In 1950, the original school burnt down, and students spent the next 4 years having classes in local churches and businesses while they waited for a new school to be built. In 1954 the new school was finally ready, and in 1956 the segregated DuBios High School became the integrated Mount Hope High School.
Today, there is a museum dedicated to the DuBois High School in Mount Hope, which hosts educational programs keeping alive the spirit of the school. Thank you to Jean Evansmore for pointing us to this story and providing the photo.
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.
John Robert (J.R.) Clifford was born in 1848, to Isaac Clifford (c.1824 – c.1903) and Satilpa Kent Clifford (c.1816 – c.1850) in what is now Grant County, West Virginia. J.R. had two older brothers, Theodore and David. The ancestors of both Isaac Clifford and Satilpa Kent Clifford can be traced back to the late 1700s in West Virginia and appear to have been free men and women throughout that time period. While this wasn’t typical in much of the south, it might not have been surprising in West Virginia. Some of the Clifford’s ancestors were from Hardy County, which had more free people of color than slaves in the late 1700s.
There is limited documentation from that era, but we know that J.R.’s father Isaac Clifford was a farmer, and a moderately successful one. In 1860, he reported personal property worth $400 – not much by today’s standards, but respectable in that era. J.R.’s brother Theodore served in the Civil War and became a minister in the United Brethren Church. He married Sarah Jane Turney Clifford and had 11 children. J.R. himself served in Company F, 13th Regiment, U.S. Heavy Artillery during the Civil War and was honorably discharged in 1865. After graduating from Storer College in 1875, he married Mary Elizabeth Franklin in Harpers Ferry. They went on to have 10 children.
The reuse of names within the family is another complicating factor in putting together a family history. J.R. Clifford’s father was named Isaac, but so was his grandfather. A court record from 1796 shows that an Isaac Clifford sued a man named James Ryan for battery and false imprisonment. Based on the date this must be the elder Isaac, since the younger Isaac wasn’t born until 1824. The first Isaac Clifford appears in the 1800 census as the head of a household consisting of 5 people in Allegany County, Maryland, but by 1810 is listed in Hardy County, West Virginia. In 1830, the family seems to have grown, and Isaac appears as the head of a household of 8 persons in Hardy County. Carter G. Woodson’s book Free Negro Heads of Families in the United States in 1830, lists two other families of “free colored” Cliffords in the United States.
Thank you to the Clifford family for sharing their geneological information with us. Any errors in this account are the responsibility of Friends of Blackwater and not the Clifford family.
In 2009, the U.S. Postal Service produced a set of stamps honoring civil rights pioneers, including J.R. Clifford. We were so excited to see a local hero receive national recognition that we had a celebration, and in the process got to meet some of Clifford’s descendants. The images below show the stamps, and a group photo of the Clifford family.