Historical Marker #1959, located in Pikeville, Kentucky (Pike County) honors the rare artistry and incredible resilience of Black poet Effie Waller Smith.
Waller Smith was born on in Pike County on January 6, 1879, to formerly enslaved parents. Her mother, Sibbie Ratliff Waller, had been enslaved to the white Ratliff family in Pike County, while her father, Frank Waller, had moved to the area after claiming his freedom from a large plantation in Virginia. Frank was an enterprising and talented individual, who provided for Effie and her three siblings through his business as a blacksmith, and later accumulated a modest estate through property speculation. Both he and Sibbie placed a high value on education and, despite their own limited literacy, read whatever they could to their children often.
The Waller children, instilled with a love of learning, all later attended the Kentucky Normal School for Colored Persons (present-day Kentucky State University) and achieved two-year certifications in teaching. Effie taught schools in Pikeville and Eastern Tennessee for sixteen years after graduating in 1901.
However, teaching was not Effie’s only passion. She, like her siblings, read poetry and classical literature throughout her childhood, and had started composing poems of her own at the age of sixteen. Most were written according to the popular conventions of the time—having a standard meter and rhyme scheme—and described aspects of nature and the outdoors in wonderful detail.
By 1902, Smith had published a number of these poems in local newspapers and magazines and, after positive reception from her community, began to solicit her readers to support further publishing efforts. Several Pikeville residents donated to or wrote recommendations for her cause, including Mary Elliot Flannery, a prominent white woman who would later become the first woman in the South to be elected to her state legislature.
Smith and her allies succeeded in 1904, when Broadway Publishing in New York agreed to publish Smith’s first volume, Songs of the Months. Across its 110 poems and 173 pages, she asserts her racial heritage several times, despite knowing that her readership would be largely white. One pair of stanzas, from her poem “Answer to Verses Addressed to Me by Peter Clay,” reads:
For ‘tis the genius of the soul
(Though underneath a skin
Of dusky hue its fire may burn)
Your unfeigned praises win.
Oh, that the earth had more beings
With generous minds like yours,
Who alike true worth and honor
To the black and white secures.
Songs of the Months garnered enough success that Broadway Publishing accepted Smith’s request for a second book. This commission gave rise to Rhymes from the Cumberland, published in 1909. Smith completed another volume that year, Rosemary and Pansies, published by the renowned Gorham Press of Boston.
Interestingly, this volume, along with several later short stories and poems, were published under the name of an Effie Smith hailing from Baileyton, Tennessee. Judging from the similar styles and subjects in these works, it is assumed that Smith wished to publish these pieces through an alter ego—one that never specified that she was Black. It could be that Smith employed this tactic to avoid racial barriers, which is evidenced by the fact that Effie Smith of Baileyton was able to publish in more prominent journals than Effie Smith of Pikeville, such as The Independent and Reader, Putnam Monthly, and Harper’s Monthly Magazine, each with over a hundred thousand subscribers. Additionally, no records of an Effie Waller or Effie Smith living in Baileyton have ever been found. Smith herself never confirmed that any of this was the case.
During these peak years of her writing, however, Smith’s personal life had fallen into turmoil. Her younger brother Marvin died of unknown causes in 1903. In 1904, she married a transient railroad worker named Lyss Cockrell, but divorced him after he left her for another woman. She married her second husband, Charles Smith, in 1908. Their first and only child died shortly after birth, and Charles himself was shot and killed in the line of duty as a police deputy, as he attempted to arrest a group of white moonshiners in 1911. The moonshiners were found innocent in a trial that lasted less than a day.
Smith published little over the next three decades. Two years after her father died in 1916, she and her mother moved from Pikeville to Waukesha, Wisconsin, joining a Methodist commune for several years before defecting.
Although her last poem was published in 1917, Smith continued to write privately, and additionally turned to another mode of artistry. In the 1930s, she created an exquisite rock garden on her property, through which thousands of visitors strolled each year.
Effie Waller Smith died in 1960, while residing in Neenah, Wisconsin, with her adopted daughter Ruth. Her poems and stories remain cherished pieces of Kentucky and America’s art history today.