Effie Waller Smith

Effie Waller Smith (1879-1960) was a remarkable black poet in the early 20th century with a story unlike any other Neenah resident.  Her story was unknown to everyone, except her daughter Ruth, until long after she died. In Neenah, Effie has only recently been recognized as a poet who, not only revered her Appalachian home and its landscapes, but “pushed readers to reconsider and perhaps reject hierarchies of race, class, gender and place.” She expressed both feminist and environmental awareness and addresses both racism and classism as well.

Born in Pike County Kentucky in 1879. Both of her parents had been slaves before the Civil War and had taken the surname of their owners. Her mother, Sibbie, had been purchased along with Sibbie's mother by Col. Ratliff. The family was part of a group of slaves being sold near Pikeville, and Col Ratliff, who did not own any slaves but sympathized with them, went to the sale to try to keep the family together. While he could not afford to buy the entire family, he was able to buy Sibbie and her mother, and they lived with him until after the Civil War.  Sibbie married Frank Waller in 1873. Frank Waller was born in 1845 and had been a slave on the Waller estate in Spotsylvania County, Virginia. He became a skilled blacksmith, farmer and businessman, speculating in property and accumulating a sizeable estate.

Effie attended and graduated from Kentucky Normal School for Colored Persons in Frankfort Kentucky and became a teacher of, "Unusual Mentality," according to Mary Elliott Flanery wrote wrote the introduction to Effie's book of poems, "Songs of the Months." Effie gained very early national recognition being one of the examples of successful African Americans in Reverend Pipkins book “The Negro in Revelation, in History, and in Citizenship” a study of the contributions of African Americans in the United States and the world, published in 1902.

Effie started publishing poems in local papers, and then published two books through vanity publishers and the support of patrons. Ultimately she had poems published in popular national magazines including Putnam’s Monthly and Harpers Magazine, one of the nations most prestigious literary journals. This was an amazing accomplishment for an African American woman only 50 years after the end of slavery.

Effie's father died in 1916 and the family moved to Waukesha Wisconsin in 1918.  Meanwhile, back in Kentucky, one of Effie’s former students, Polly Mullins Ratliff was ill. Polly and Effie had grown close when Effie lived with the Mullins family for an extended period while she was teaching. Polly had a daughter, Ruth Ratliff, who was born in October of 1917. She knew she might not live long and asked Effie, if she died, would Effie adopt Ruth and make sure she got an education.  After Polly died in 1927, Effie adopted Ruth upon seeing the poor conditions under which Ruth was living in Kentucky with her maternal grandparents. Ruth joined Effie in Wisconsin in 1935.

Ruth continued her education and earned her teaching degree, becoming a teacher at Trinity Lutheran School in Neenah in the 1940s.  Effie joined her daughter in Neenah in the early 1950s when she was struggling to take care of her home due to her age and glaucoma. Effie died in January 1960, and is buried in Oak Hill Cemetery in Neenah.

To learn more about Effie Waller Smith's life and read some of her poetry, click here to download an article on her life written by JoEllen Wollangk.