Skip to main content
WVU Law - JR Clifford and the Niagara Movement group photo

Black History Month: The Legacy of J.R. Clifford

Civil rights pioneer John Robert “J.R.” Clifford was West Virginia’s first African American attorney.

WVU Law - a sketch of JR Clifford as a young man

Clifford did not earn his law degree from WVU, but his legacy is enshrined and honored at the College of Law.

Born in 1848 in present-day Moorefield, West Virginia, Clifford enlisted in the United States Colored Troops when he was 15 years old and served in the Civil War as a corporal in the Union Army.

After the war, Clifford attended Storer College in Harper’s Ferry, where he graduated in 1875 with a teaching degree. He became a teacher and eventually the principal at the Sumner School, a black public school in Martinsburg.

Clifford added the title of “journalist” to his resume in 1882 when he founded and began publishing the Pioneer Press. It was West Virginia’s first newspaper owned by an African American and the first newspaper to promote African American issues.

Clifford read the law and passed the bar. In 1887, he became the first African American admitted to practice law before the Supreme Court of Appeals of West Virginia.

That put him on course to be one of the first lawyers in the nation to challenge segregation in the public school system, more than 50 years before Brown v. Board of Education.

That 1898 pioneering case was Williams v. Board of Education. It was brought before the Supreme Court of Appeals of West Virginia after the Tucker County Board of Education shortened the public school year for black students from nine to five months. The school year for white students remained nine months.

In defiance of her school board, Tucker County teacher Carrie Williams continued to teach classes for black students for the full school year. As a result, she was not paid for her work, and she and Clifford filed a lawsuit for her back pay.

The court ruled in Williams’ favor, upholding that black and white students should have the same educational rights. It was among the first rulings in the United States to make racial discrimination illegal.

Clifford continued to advance African American civil rights. In 1906, he organized the first meeting of the Niagara Movement held on American soil — at his alma mater, Storer College.

WVU Law - Niagara Movement leaders W. E. B. Du Bois , JR Clifford, Lafayette M. Hershaw, and Freeman H. M. Murray at Harpers Ferry.

Niagara Movement leaders J.R. Clifford (top left), W. E. B. Du Bois (seated), Lafayette M. Hershaw, and Freeman H. M. Murray (bottom right) at Harpers Ferry in 1906.

The Niagara Movement became the foundation for the modern Civil Rights Movement and the formation of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

Clifford practiced law for 45 years and remained active in both state and national politics until his death in 1933. He continued his trailblazing career by serving as the first vice president at the American Negro Academy and as the president of the National Independent League.

Clifford died in 1933. One way his legacy is honored at WVU Law today is through an endowed scholarship for minority students.

The J.R. Clifford Scholarship encourages WVU Law to be more competitive in attracting and retaining students of color. The scholarship demonstrates the efforts made by the law school and its donors to direct philanthropic support toward furthering the institution’s diversity initiatives that will ultimately be reflected in the legal profession.

Clarence Moore

The current recipient of the J.R. Clifford Scholarship is Clarence Moore '24 of Moreno Valley, California. Before law school, he ran a car dealership and mentored at-risk youth. 

Moore is interested in criminal law. He was drawn to WVU Law because of its commitment to increasing diversity in the legal profession and the West Virginia Innocence Project Law Clinic.

"Being that I am a formerly incarcerated individual, and have been subjected to some of the unfair treatments of the criminal justice system, I feel that it is my duty to do the best that I can to effect change," he said.

WVU LAW Facebook WVU LAW Twitter WVU LAW Instagram WVU LAW LinkedIn WVU LAW Youtube Channel