John “J. R.” Clifford was a Williamsport, Virginia (now West Virginia) native who was a member of the United States Colored Troops.
According to his military records, he had enlisted in the 13th USCT Heavy Artillery in Chicago, Illinois in 1864where he had been attending school. Clifford attained the rank of Corporal of Company F. He was mustered out at Louisville, Kentucky on November 18, 1865.
After surviving the war, Clifford taught school in Martinsburg. He published the Pioneer Press in 1882 and continued producing that publication until 1917. It was the longest continuously published African American weekly newspaper of his day.
Clifford’s most noted contribution came in the field of civil rights. In 1898, Clifford, who had become the first African American lawyer in the state of West Virginia, argued the case in the West Virginia Supreme Court known as Williams vs. Board of Education. The case, which occurred fifty years before the much more famous Brown vs. Board of Education, was a landmark victory for equality of education for African American students.
Clifford represented African American school teacher Carrie Williams of Tucker County. The Tucker County Board of Education has shorted the school year for black students to five months, while keeping the white students in school for the full year. It is considered to be one of the most important victories for civil rights before the turn of the century.
Clifford participated in the Niagara Movement in 1906 at Harpers Ferry which led to the formation of the NAACP.
He died in 1933 and is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.
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