John Waller’s life, like many other enslaved African Americans in the 1800s, was to serve their owners and break their backs on the plantations.
But his destiny changed when he and his parents were rescued by a Union infantry regiment in 1862. After gaining their freedom, the family relocated to Iowa where the regiment was stationed. Waller caught the eye of a farmer who employed him in Iowa. He was given the chance by the farmer to go to school for four years, according to BlackPast.
He graduated high school in Toledo, Iowa. However, he couldn’t proceed to college because of an epidemic that hit his family.
In 1874, he met Judge N.M. Hubbard when he moved to Cedar Rapids, Iowa. While in the judge’s library, he had an opportunity to read legal documents and judgments to improve his knowledge of the law. He was admitted to the Iowa bar in 1877.
He relocated to Leavenworth, Kansas where he began his legal profession. Over there, local whites favored the services of white attorneys while Blacks doubted his qualifications. His dexterity and skill in how he discharged his service slowly warmed him into the hearts of the natives.
When his influence grew in the legal profession, he switched his interest to politics. Due to his oratory skills, he was picked by Leavenworth Republicans in 1884 to campaign for them in eastern Kansas as an endorsement of the Republican ticket.
Waller was handed his first political appointment three years later. He became deputy city attorney of Topeka, Kansas. After the appointment, he wrote editorials for the Lawrence newspaper Colored Citizen. Waller became the only African American to be selected for the Electoral College during the 1888 presidential election. He voted for president-to-be Benjamin Harrison.
He was hoping to become a state auditor for Kansas in 1890 but this proved unsuccessful. He became disturbed over the period by the limited opportunities for African Americans to move beyond local elective office.
Despite that, he remained committed to the Republican Party. In 1891, he was appointed by President Harrison to be U.S. consul to Madagascar, which at the time was an underdeveloped Island being ruled by a monarchy.
When Waller’s term of office ended in 1894, he persuaded the monarchy to provide him with 15,000 acres of land that would be used for African-American settlement. The French, which had colonial ambitions on the Island at the time, considered this activity a threat to their aspirations. The French arrested him on charges that he was leaking sensitive military information to the indigenes of Madagascar.
He was prosecuted in a French colonial court and sentenced to prison in Marseille in 1894. Through the intervention of President Grover Cleveland in 1895, he avoided the 20-year prison term.
His arrest garnered a political storm which became known as the Waller Affair. He moved back to the U.S. to fight the Spanish American War in 1898 as an officer with the 23rd Kansas Volunteers.
In 1900, he retired from public life and settled in New York City with his family. He passed away in October 1907 after he experienced a pneumonia attack in Yonkers, New York.
Waller was born to slave parents, Anthony and Maria Waller on a plantation in New Madrid County, Missouri. The date of his birth is in question but some official documents indicate that he was born in 1851.