Stafford, Wallace F. W.
Kalamazoo County's First Black Elected Official
Little is known of the life of Wallace F. W. Stafford aside from a few early life events that speak to Stafford’s community standing and professional interests. And while his life in Kalamazoo after 1894 has been less chronicled, Stafford is deserving of the recognition of being the first African American elected to county office.
Wallace was born to George and Mary Stafford in 1870. Wallace’s father was a Civil War veteran who survived a Confederate prison camp, and a successful barber who was known for his support for the Republican Party. George had been the first African American to be nominated for public office in the county, but ended up losing the election. At the time of his death in 1918, he was considered the city’s “oldest barber.”
His son on the other hand, graduated from the Kalamazoo Public Schools in 1890. Stafford was chosen as one of the speakers at the commencement ceremony. He also held the title of Class Prophet. Shortly after graduating, Wallace took a position at Gen. William Shakespeare’s law firm, apprenticing under the prominent Civil War veteran and local attorney. While working with Shakespeare, Stafford was appointed a Notary Public. In 1892, Stafford applied and was accepted to the law school at the University of Michigan, but for health reasons requiring rest, returned to Kalamazoo, where he joined the law firm of I. Nathaniel Wattles. While clerking with the Wattles firm, Stafford managed the City Collection Agency. At this time, a person was not required to attend law school in order to obtain a law degree. One could take the bar exam after having studied under another attorney. This was likely Stafford’s plan.
In the Spring of 1894, at the age of 23, Stafford was nominated to run for Justice of the Peace by the local Republican Party leadership. Stafford won the April 2nd election with 57 percent of the vote, hinting at his widespread popularity among both the small black population (approximately 450 residents) and the larger white community.
After 1894, only a handful of articles in the Kalamazoo Gazette chronicle Stafford’s life and career. We know that he served as secretary of the Stockbridge Debating Society in 1894, that he purchased a home along the 500 block of W. Kalamazoo Avenue with his wife Lura (married in 1898), that he attended his sister’s wedding in 1900, and that he resigned from the Shakespeare firm in 1901 to pursue a position with the Harvey Manufacturing Company in Harvey, Illinois. Later, in the 1917 city directory, his occupation is listed as ‘manager.’ In the 1930 Federal Census, he was listed as living in Chicago and working as a bookkeeper in the roofing industry. It is likely that sometime in the 1930s, Stafford moved to the Denver, Colorado area. Stafford died in 1954, and is buried in Littleton, Colorado beside his wife.
Article written by Ryan Gage, Kalamazoo Public Library staff, August 2023
“Kazoo’s oldest barber is dead”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 29 April 1918, p.10
Afro-American journal and directory (1894)
H 973.0496 A2587
Local History Room Files
Subject File: Stafford, Wallace F.