The Archives and History section of the West Virginia Division of Culture and History has posted some of the Pioneer Press editorials by J. R. Clifford as part of its Black History Month celebration and to pay tribute to Clifford who is one of 12 civil rights pioneers announced as honorees on the February 2009 Commemorative Stamp Set being issued by the U.S. Postal Service. The Pioneer Press was the state’s first black newspaper. The editorials can be accessed at the Division’s Web site at www.wvculture.org/history/africanamericans/pioneerpress.html.
On Friday, Feb. 20, at 11:30 a.m., the U.S. Postal Service will present the J. R. Clifford Stamp celebration program at the Cultural Center, State Capitol Complex in Charleston. Guests include Gov. Joe Manchin III and first lady Gayle Manchin, House Speaker Rick Thompson, State Education Superintendent Steve Paine, NAACP Charleston Chapter President Coston Davis, representatives of Clifford’s family, the Martin Luther King, Jr. Male Chorus, Kitty Dooley, former West Virginia Supreme Court Justice Larry Starcher and more. First Day issue commemorative stamps can be ordered from the Postal Service during the ceremony. The event is free and open to the public.
The posted editorials date from January 1911 through September 1916. Clifford was, among other things, a strong advocate for civil rights. His June 3, 1911, editorial reads, in part, “For 28 years The Pioneer Press has been a leader in this State and Nation for the grand and noble fight that is being waged for the amelioration of the condition of the Negro.” On May 25, 1912, he wrote, “One of our strong writers, says: ‘The Negro has I fear little to hope for.’ That’s true, but he has a great deal to fight for. Will he do it?”
Clifford was a trailblazer in many aspects of West Virginia’s black history. He broke new ground in education, journalism, law, and civil rights. Clifford was born in Williamsport, Hardy County (present-day Grant County) in 1848. He served in the 13th U.S. Heavy Artillery during the Civil War. After the war, he attended a writing school in Wheeling and then began teaching other African Americans to write. After graduating from the Storer College normal department in 1875, Clifford accepted a teaching position at the Sumner School in Martinsburg and was eventually promoted to principal.
In 1882, while teaching at Sumner, Clifford established the Pioneer Press. He advocated for the rights of African Americans locally and nationally. He often criticized the all-white management of Storer College. The Pioneer Press remained one of the most respected black newspapers in the national until it was closed by the federal government in 1917, due to Clifford’s editorial criticisms of the United States’ involvement in World War I.
Many of Clifford’s most important contributions to black history were in the field of law. He studied with a white lawyer in Martinsburg, J. Nelson Wysner, and in 1887 became the first African American to pass the West Virginia bar examination. He argued two landmark cases before the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals, winning one. In Williams v. Board of Education of Tucker County, the Tucker County Board of Education had reduced the school term of African-American schools from eight to five months to save money. A black teacher, Carrie Williams, consulted with Clifford who suggested she continue teaching the entire eight months, despite the fact she would not be paid. When the board refused to pay Williams for the additional three months, Clifford took the case to court. The West Virginia Supreme Court found in favor of Williams, the first ruling in U.S. history to determine that racial discrimination was illegal.
In the area of civil rights, Clifford worked with his friend, W. E. B. Du Bois, to found the Niagara Movement in 1905. They developed the movement to counter Booker T. Washington’s philosophy of working within the existing system to achieve gradual civil rights and advancement. Washington had become quite popular with the white politicians of the time because of his conservative views. Participants in the Niagara Movement wanted immediate change. Clifford left the Niagara Movement when it formed the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1909. Among other disagreements, he objected to the use of the word “colored” in the organization’s title.
Clifford died in Martinsburg in 1933, at the age of 85. In 1954 his body was reinterred in Arlington National Cemetery in recognition of his service during the Civil War.
For more information, contact Jacqueline Proctor, deputy commissioner of the Division, at (304) 558-0220.
The West Virginia Division of Culture and History, an agency of the West Virginia Department of Education and the Arts, brings together the state’s past, present and future through programs and services in the areas of archives and history, the arts, historic preservation and museums. Its administrative offices are located at the Cultural Center in the State Capitol Complex in Charleston, which also houses the state archives and state museum. The Cultural Center is West Virginia’s official showcase for the arts. The agency also operates a network of museums and historic sites across the state. For more information about the Division’s programs, visit www.wvculture.org. The Division of Culture and History is an Equal Opportunity/Affirmative Action Employer.
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