Attorney John Robert “J.R.” Clifford became the first African American admitted to practice law before the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals. He was also one of the first lawyers in the nation to challenge segregated schools, as well as a civil rights pioneer and founding member of the Niagara Movement.
Clifford was born on September 13, 1848, in Grant County, to Isaac Clifford and Saltipa Kent Clifford. Both his parents and grandparents were “free blacks” and had lived in that region of Virginia for several generations. There were no schools for colored children in the area. Clifford’s parents sent him to Chicago to attend school, sometime in the early 1860s to be educated by J. J. Healy.
In 1864, at the age of fifteen, Clifford enlisted in the United States Colored Troops, and served in Company F, 13th Regiment of Heavy Artillery, United States Colored Troops until 1865, having reached the rank of Corporal. At the end of the war he served as a nurse.
In the early 1870s he enrolled in Harpers Ferry’s newly formed Storer College, created to educate the region’s African-American population. Between 1875 and 1885, he served as a teacher and principal to Sumner School in Martinsburg. In 1882, he founded and edited to the first black newspaper, the Pioneer Press.
Clifford was elected in 1897, as a charter member of the American Negro Academy. He served a term as vice president of the organization. He was on the committee on arrangement of the 1906 meeting of the Niagara Movement, which was held in Harpers Ferry. This very meeting laid the foundation of the NAACP and the 20th century civil rights movement. Clifford practiced law until his death at the age of 85. He was the oldest lawyer active in West Virginia at the time.