Civil rights trailblazer J. R. Clifford died on October 6, 1933, at age 85. A native of present-day Grant County, he served in an African American unit during the Civil War. Afterward, he taught at a black school and founded Martinsburg’s Pioneer Press, the first black-owned newspaper in West Virginia. He used its editorial pages to fight for better economic and social conditions for African Americans.
Five years later, Clifford became West Virginia’s first African American attorney. In this role, he fought landmark trials against racial discrimination. In the case of a Tucker County teacher, he was one of the first lawyers in the nation to successfully challenge segregated schools. He also helped organize a national civil rights meeting in Harpers Ferry that was a springboard for the N.A.A.C.P.
In 1917, he wrote a series of forceful editorials opposing U.S. involvement in World War I. In response to the criticism, the government shut down the Pioneer Press—after 35 years in print—for violating postal laws. Today, Clifford is remembered as one of the great civil rights leaders in West Virginia and the nation.