John L. Waller was a career Republican and activist who played a significant role in Kansas politics. He was born to slave parents, Anthony and Maria Waller, on a plantation in New Madrid County, Missouri. Some records suggest he was born in 1851, contrary to his own testimony. Waller and his parents were freed by a Union infantry regiment in 1862, and he moved to Iowa where the regiment was based.
Thanks to an Iowa farmer who hired him, Waller was able to attend school for four years starting in 1863. He graduated from high school in Toledo, Iowa but his college education was interrupted by an unidentified epidemic that affected his family whom he returned to support.
In 1874 Waller moved to Cedar Rapids, Iowa. He began to read legal documents, which led Judge N. M. Hubbard to place his entire legal library at Waller’s disposal. Waller made good use of that library and was admitted to the Iowa bar in 1877.
In 1878 Waller moved to Leavenworth, Kansas where he opened a practice. Success came slowly. Local whites preferred white attorneys and local blacks questioned his qualifications. His skill as a lawyer, however, eventually won him both black and white clients. With that success, he turned to politics. In 1884 Waller, now also recognized for his speaking ability, was recruited by Leavenworth Republicans to tour eastern Kansas in support of the Republican ticket.
Three years later Waller received his first political appointment. On June 28, 1887, Waller was appointed deputy city attorney of Topeka, Kansas. After the appointment he contributed editorials to the Lawrence newspaper Colored Citizen. In the 1888 presidential election, Waller was the only black man in the United States to be selected for the Electoral College. He cast a vote for president-to-be Benjamin Harrison. In 1890 Waller ran unsuccessfully for Kansas state auditor.
The inability of black Republicans to move beyond local elective office left Waller disillusioned with his political chances in Kansas. He remained loyal to the Republican Party