“Effie Waller Smith embodies so much of what this region is about,” says Rusty Justice, Pike County resident and historian. “It’s not what you think. In the age in which she was born and lived here in the hills of Eastern Kentucky, a widely renowned poet, all the things that are counterintuitive to the stereotypes, we see.”
Smith was born in Chloe Creek to former slaves. Her father, Frank Waller, had been a laborer on a plantation in Virginia. Her mother, Sibbie Ratliff, was native to Pike County.
“After the Civil War, they were able to come here,” says Justice. “Her father came here because he could go into business and he was allowed to exercise his economic freedom. He was a successful businessman.”
“She lived in an integrated community which was unusual for that period of time,” says James B. Goode, Coordinator of the Kentucky Writers Hall of Fame. “I think that, as a result, influenced a great deal of her writing.
“She attended segregated schools,” Goode continues. “The school only went to the eighth grade. After she graduated, she went to Kentucky Normal School for Colored People in Frankfort, which is now Kentucky State University.”
Historian William David Deskins explains that education was important to Smith’s parents. Her older brother and sister went to college ahead of her, helping to ignite the spark she had for writing.
“Alfred went to Kentucky State University. Rosa went to Kentucky State University,” says Deskins. “I think as they gained their education, they brought books home to little sister Effie, and she exploded into poetry.”
Smith’s first book, “Songs of the Months”, was published in 1904, with support from her friends and neighbors in Pike County. Mary Elliott Flanery, a journalist who would later go on to become the first woman elected to Kentucky’s General Assembly, was one of Smith’s early supporters who helped publish the book.
“She really was a talented writer,” says Goode. “[Her work is] anachronistic in the sense that she wrote poetry that was of the time, in the style of the time. But she had a great knowledge of structure, meter, rhyme scheme, and these poems were not easy to write.”
“At Christmas, we give each other gifts to symbolize the great gift that the birth of Christ was to us and all mankind,” says Justice. “Effie’s poetry is our gift. If people are watching this right now and experiencing and meeting Effie for the first time, hey, Merry Christmas! This is a wonderful gift and you’ll enjoy it.”
This segment is part of Kentucky Life episode #2308, which originally aired on December 23, 2017. Watch the full episode.