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Sat, 01.12.1850

John L. Waller, Lawyer, and Journalist born

John Lewis Waller

*John L. Waller was born on this date in 1850.  He was a Black lawyer, politician, journalist, publisher, businessman, military leader, and diplomat. 

John Lewis Waller was born into slavery in New Madrid County, Missouri. At the end of the American Civil War, he moved with his family to a farm in Tama County, Iowa. Waller's formal education, begun in 1863, ended with his graduation from high school in Toledo, Iowa. Waller entered politics while living in Iowa. While living in Cedar Rapids and working as a barber, he was permitted to use the law library of Judge N.M. Hubbard.  Waller passed the bar in October 1877.

On May 1 of the next year, he moved to Topeka, Kansas, in response to "Pap" Singleton's call for Blacks to colonize the state.  On March 10, 1882, Waller founded the Western Recorder; the newspaper continued publication until 1885 in Lawrence, Kansas. In Topeka, Kansas, in February 1888, Waller and his cousin Anthony Morton established The American Citizen.  In 1888, Waller became the state’s first Black presidential elector, supporting the Republican ticket of Benjamin Harrison and Levi Morton. He was charged with the responsibility to transport the results of the Kansan vote to Washington, D.C., that year.

After the election, Waller unsuccessfully campaigned to become the state auditor for Kansas. In 1891, President Harrison named him U.S. consul to the Merina Kingdom of Madagascar.  As newly appointed consul, Waller traveled to Madagascar with his wife and daughter. He strongly supported Queen Ranavalona III in her efforts to hold off colonial encroachment by the French, and the Waller family grew close to the royal family. For his support, the queen granted him a concession of 150,000 acres (610 km2) on the southern end of the island, lush with mahogany, ebony, rosewood, and rubber trees. Waller developed the land into thriving production.  In 1895, Waller's teenage daughter Jennie married Henri Razafinkarefo, the queen's nephew.

Later that year, with threats of French invasion looming, Waller had his wife and daughter, now pregnant with the baby who would grow up to be lyricist Andy Razaf, sent back to the United States for their safety.  Following the second Franco-Hova war, the queen was deposed, and several members of the royal family — including Waller's young son-in-law — were killed. After France entered into a treaty with the Malagasy government, the French Resident objected to the granting of the concession without French permission. (The French may have believed that Waller's success in developing his concession infringed upon their efforts to colonize the island.)

French authorities arrested Waller and accused him of being a spy who provided military information to the Hovas in their attempts to maintain their country's monarchy and independence. Waller was court-martialed and sentenced to twenty years imprisonment.  Congressional resolutions led American president Grover Cleveland to demand that Waller be set free, and he was released after ten months' incarceration in Marseille. However, the French did not return his concession, which they declared invalid and confiscated.  

After his release, Waller returned to the United States, gathered his family, and began a law practice in Kansas City.  In August 1898, he organized a company of Black soldiers to serve in the Spanish American War. The group became Company C of the 23rd Kansas Volunteer Infantry, with Waller serving as a captain.  After the war, Waller and his family moved to New York, where he died of pneumonia in 1907.   

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