The Odell Waller Case (1917- July 2, 1942) centered around the execution of a Black sharecropper from Gretna, Virginia, who fatally shot his family’s white landlord, Oscar Davis, on July 15, 1940. Waller unsuccessfully maintained at his trial that the killing had been in self-defense, but was convicted of a jury of white citizens who had paid the poll tax, a measure that effectively barred blacks and poor whites from jury service.
Like many families during the Great Depression Odell and his white foster mother Annie fell behind with mortgage payments on their farm after her husband died. They agreed to become sharecroppers for a white landlord, Oscar Davis who was a sharecropper himself. The relationship quickly soured when Davis’ own landlord reduced land allotment. Davis did the same to the Waller Family. In addition The Wallers accused Davis of failing to pay Annie an agreed $7.50 for taking care of Davis’ ill wife for three weeks prior. When the Wallers refused to work in Davis’ fields, until they were paid, Davis evicted them.
Following the eviction, someone on the Davis farm mutilated one of the Wallers’ dogs. After Annie’s cousin Robert helped her harvest the farm’s wheat, Davis took the whole crop rather than give the Wallers their share. In April 1940, Odell who had taken a job constructing electrical lines in Maryland returned home to a worsening situation. At 6:30 AM on July 15, 1940, Odell drove to Davis’s farm to get the wheat with Annie, relatives Archie Waller and Thomas Younger, and a friend. Odell brought a .32 caliber pistol.
Waller stated that Davis had refused to let him take the Waller family share of the wheat, and had reached for his pocket as if to draw a gun; Waller then fired on Davis. Davis escaped through the cornfield after being shot and died two days later of his wounds. Afraid of being lynched, Waller fled to Columbus, Ohio, but was arrested on July 24 after a manhunt involving police and the FBI.
Henry Davis, a teenage black employee of Oscar Davis, maintained that Odell Waller had fired at Oscar Davis without warning and Davis’s sons testified that their father was shot without cause. The testimony of other witnesses, including Waller’s relatives, was considered inconclusive.
The Workers’ Defense League, a socialist labor rights organization, began a national campaign calling for the commutation of Waller’s sentence, and was supported in its efforts by novelist Pearl S. Buck, philosopher John Dewey, and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. President Franklin D. Roosevelt also made a private appeal on Waller’s behalf to Virginia Governor Colgate Darden, which yield no effect. Though the campaign won several postponements of the sentence, Waller was finally executed on July 2, 1942. The case failed to overturn the poll tax, but led to reform of Virginia’s penal system and motivated famed attorney Pauli Murray to begin her career in civil rights law.