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John Lewis Waller

first black to ever cast an electoral vote for President

John Lewis Waller

John Lewis Waller was born into slavery on January 12, 1850, in New Madrid County, Missouri. His family was freed by Union soldiers during the Civil War and hired by a farmer in Tama County, Iowa, where John was able to attend school; he graduated from the high school in Toledo, Iowa.

In 1874, Waller moved to Cedar Rapids, where he worked as a barber while studying law in the library of Judge N.M. Hubbard. He passed the bar in October 1877, and, on May 1, 1878, moved to Leavenworth, Kansas, and established a law practice, in response to "Pap" Singleton's call for African-Americans to colonize that state. Although he initially had trouble attracting clients, Waller's oratorical skills allowed him to overcome prejudices from whites and blacks alike and enjoy success. On March 10, 1882, he founded the Western Recorder, the first black newspaper in Kansas, in Lawrence. The newspaper gave him a forum to express his political views, and in 1884 he was recruited by Leavenworth Republicans to tour eastern Kansas in support of the Republican ticket. His political loyalties were rewarded on June 28, 1887, when he was appointed Deputy City Attorney of Topeka. In February 1888, he and cousin Anthony Morton established The American Citizen, a political magazine, in Topeka. He became the first ever black Presidential Elector that same year, and traveled to Washington to cast an Electoral College vote for Republican candidate Benjamin Harrison.

Waller ran for State Auditor in 1890 but lost, after which he all but gave up on politics and resumed his law practice. In 1891, he was appointed U.S. Consul to Madagascar, which at that time was an independent monarchy. When his term of service ended in 1894, the island's monarchy granted him 15,000 acres of rich timberland on the southern end of the island, which Waller developed into a very successful business and hoped to turn into a colony for American blacks who wished to relocate. The French government, which had recently made Madagascar a colony, saw Waller's plans as a threat, however, and arrested him for supposedly passing military secrets to the indigenous population. Waller spent ten months in a French prison before a demand for his release from President Grover Cleveland forced France to capitulate; the French did, however, take away his land concession.

After returning to the United States, Waller served as an officer with the 23rd Kansas Volunteers during the Spanish-American War. He retired from politics and moved to New York City in 1900, and died of pneumonia in Yonkers, New York, in October of 1907.

The Black Past Remembered and Reclaimed

January 12
Civil War
Benjamin "Pap" Singleton
Benjamin Harrison
President Grover Cleveland
Spanish-American War
New York City

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The Robinson Library >> American History >> United States: General History and Description >> African-Americans