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J.R. Clifford and the Pioneer Press

Posted by Jane Metters LaBarbara.
August 18th, 2014

Blog post by Stewart Plein, Rare Book Librarian.

Portrait of JR Clifford next to nameplate of Pioneer Press newspaper

John Robert Clifford (1848-1933) was a pioneer in every way.  Driven to achieve, Clifford made significant contributions towards civil rights as an activist and as editor and publisher of the Pioneer Press, a newspaper published in Martinsburg, West Virginia.  The first African-American newspaper in the state, the Pioneer Press gained readers across the country as it sought to address the “moral, religious and financial needs,” not just for African-American subscribers, but all of humanity, on a weekly basis.

A Civil War veteran, Clifford fought for the Union, serving in the United States Colored Troops, Company F, 13th Regiment of Heavy Artillery.  After his military service Clifford pursued an education at Storer College, a college established solely for the purpose of African-American education in Harpers Ferry, graduating in 1877.

In another milestone, Clifford was admitted to the West Virginia Bar in 1887, becoming West Virginia’s first African-American attorney.  The highpoint of his career came when Clifford argued and won the landmark civil rights case, Williams v. Board of Education in 1898 before the Supreme Court.  The defendant, Mrs. Carrie Williams, taught African-American children in Tucker County.  The case centered on the Tucker County Board of Education’s decision to shorten the school year for African-American children from nine to five months, while maintaining a full  educational year for white students.  Emerging as the legal victor in Williams v, Board of Education, Clifford’s significant achievement on the road to civil rights was won over fifty years before another landmark civil rights case, Brown v. Board of Education.

As the owner and editor of the Pioneer Press, Clifford ran advertisements for his legal services, along with other advertisements, in his newspaper.  As a result, he would have been well known as a lawyer within the African-American communities who subscribed to the paper. After Williams v. Board of Education, Clifford would have been recognized as a champion of civil rights.

His lifelong personal career as an activist culminated with his leadership as a co-founder of the Niagara Movement, the forerunner of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), with W.E.B. DuBois.   Most notably, Clifford organized the Second Annual Meeting of the Niagara Movement at Storer College in 1906.  According to the Arlington National Cemetery website, W.E.B. DuBois described the 1906 meeting as “one of the greatest meetings that American Negroes ever held.”  J. R. Clifford is pictured below, standing left, with Niagara Movement leaders W. E.B. DuBois, seated left,  L.M. Hershaw, standing center, and F.H.M. Murray, at the Second Annual Meeting held at Storer College, Harpers Ferry, WV, 1906.

Niagara Movement Leaders at Storer College, Harpers Ferry, W. Va.

In recognition of Clifford’s monumental achievements, the West Virginia and Regional History Center has joined with the Library of Congress on the National Digital Newspaper Project, supported by an NEH grant, to digitize Clifford’s Pioneer Press for the Chronicling America site.  WVU’s own Zachary Cowsert, a doctoral student in the History Department, has been researching and writing the historical abstract that will accompany the digitized pages of the Pioneer Press, available for all readers at the Chronicling America site in 2015.

But why wait for the fulfillment of the national digitalization project?  You can view the microfilm of the Pioneer Press as well as several physical copies, Sept. 1884, Aug. 1885, and Jan. 1913, which are also available on microfilm, at the West Virginia and Regional History Center today.


Notes on sources:

The author wishes to recognize WVU History doctoral student Zachary Cowsert for permission to use his research on J. R. Clifford and the Pioneer Press for this blog post.

Websites consulted for this blog post include Arlington National Cemetery’s site for J.R. Clifford,  and the ever resourceful website Wikipedia, from the article on J. R. Clifford,

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