Effie Waller (1879-1960)

Effie Waller Smith
Image Ownership: Neenah Historical Society
Image Ownership: Public domain

Effie Waller was an early twentieth-century poet known for her books of poetry, Songs of the Months (1904), Rhymes from the Cumberland (1909), and Rosemary and Pansies (1909).

Waller was born in Pike County, Kentucky, on January 6, 1879, to parents Sibbie and Frank Waller. Both her parents were former slaves and later on, her father became a blacksmith. She was the third of four children. Oral histories suggest Waller’s family was considered one of the most prominent African American families in the community. Waller attended the Kentucky Normal School for Colored Persons, now known as Kentucky State University, between 1900 and 1902. There, she received a teaching certificate and intermittently taught school for more than a dozen years afterward.

Waller began her writing career at the age of sixteen. Her writing style reflected that of Tennyson and Longfellow, traditional poets. Waller also drew from personal experiences. Some of them were painful such as the death of her infant son and later her husband. David Deskin, a researcher, described her work in Rosemary and Pansies as “somber and subdued yet definite and conclusive as they examine issues and situations in life. There is a mood maintained throughout that sometimes delves into the mystical.”

Waller became well published. Between 1908 and 1917, seven of her works were published in major American literary magazines. These included Putnam’s and Harper’s. Waller appeared for the last time in print at the age of thirty-eight in Harper’s in September of 1917. The work was a sonnet titled “Autumn Winds.”

Waller married twice in her life, first to Lyss Cockrell, then to Charles Smith. Both of her marriages were brief, having separated from Cockrell and Smith being killed just after two years of marriage. She bore a son through her second marriage, but her son died in infancy. Little is known about Waller after her last appearance in print in 1917, despite her living another forty years. She relocated to Wisconsin in the 1920s and raised Ruth, a daughter of a deceased friend. Waller passed away in 1960 and is buried in Neenah, Wisconsin.