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Mon, 01.06.1879

Effie Smith, Educator, and Poet born

Effie W. Smith

*Effie Waller Smith was born on this date in 1879. She was a Black educator and poet.

From a farm in Chloe Creek, Kentucky, a few miles away from Pikeville, she was born the third of four children to Frank Waller and Sibbie Ratliff, both former slaves.  The Waller household was one in which God was heavily praised and education highly prized. After completing the eighth grade at a local school, like her older siblings Alfred and Rosa, Effie attended Kentucky Normal School for Colored Persons in Frankfort, where between 1900 and 1902, she trained to be a teacher.  Little is known about her teaching career except that she taught school off and on for more than a dozen years, sometimes in Kentucky and sometimes in Tennessee.

Of Waller's writing life, we know a little bit more. Several of Smith's poems had been published in local papers by 1902, so that in 1904, her club of admirers and well-wishers celebrated her first volume of verse, Songs of the Months, released by a vanity press in New York City. The 110 poems in this collection touched on a range of subjects, including nature, romantic love, patriotism, and not least of all, the months.

The same year that Songs of the Months came out, Waller married a man named Lyss Cockrell, who quit the marriage when it was very young, and whom Effie divorced soon after he left.  In 1908, she tried matrimony again with a former classmate Charles Smith. This marriage, which produced one child who died in infancy, was also brief, with Waller filing for divorce before the year was out.

During all the personal trials of her life, Waller Smith kept at her writing, even getting three short stories published in Putnam's. In 1909, two more volumes of her verse appeared. The first was Rhymes from the Cumberland, which offers meditations and remembrances of the Kentucky-Virginia Cumberland Mountains area and musings on religion and romance.  In the second volume, Rosemary and Pansies, "many of the poems are 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." These are the words of David Deskins, who has assiduously searched for information and provided insights into the life and mind of this rather unknown bard.

In 1917, she appeared in print for the last time: the publication was the prestigious magazine Harper's, and the work was a sonnet, "Autumn Winds." After this, Effie Waller Smith, the writer, apparently disappeared, though the woman lived another forty years, the bulk of which she spent in Wisconsin, where she relocated in the mid-1920s and where she raised Ruth, the daughter of a deceased friend whom she adopted in the late 1920s. Effie Waller Smith died in 1960.

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