Josiah Thomas Walls was used to dodging bullets. He did it as an active Civil War veteran. He dodged an assassin’s bullet while campaigning to represent Florida in Congress. And once elected, he dodged the bullet thrown at him by a House committee that unseated him only to be re-elected twice.
Walls was the first Black representative elected in Florida and he remained the only one until the 1990’s.
He was born a slave in 1842 in Winchester, Va. His owner, Dr. John Walls, was likely his father. When the Civil War broke out he was conscripted to work as a servant in the Confederate Army. He was captured by Union soldiers in 1862 and emancipated. A year later he was serving in the Union army, a member of the United States Colored Troops. His service landed him in northern Florida where he remained after the war.
Walls was to serve three terms in Congress between 1871 and 1877. He was active and well-respected as a legislator. The New National Era, an African-American newspaper based in Washington, had this to say about Walls (Feb. 5, 1874):
“While active and earnest in behalf of the Civil Rights Bill and measures for the benefit of his people, Hon. Josiah T. Walls, the colored member from Florida, has the general interest of his State and nation at heart, and labors to promote them with commendable zeal. We have before us the speech of this gentleman before the Transportation Committee of the United States Senate advocating the construction of a canal through the peninsula of Florida, in which the advantages to national and international commerce, with the development of the resources of the State bordering on the Gulf are treated in a clear and able manner. When such speeches are being made, and such interest is being shown by colored men in Congress we have every reason to be proud, and to entertain high hopes for the future.”
A good deal of Walls time In Congress was spent on initiatives to support and benefit his Florida constituents. He was originally elected as an at-large congressman, thus representing the entire state. He sought funding to erect telegraph lines, courthouses and post offices. He advocated improvements to the state’s harbors and waterways and sought tariffs to protect Florida’s growers. As was the case with many of the Black Congressmen during the Reconstruction era, most of his proposals never made it out of committee and to the House floor.
Walls was originally elected as a Republican in 1870, going head to head against former slave owner and Confederate veteran Silas L. Niblack. It was during that campaign that an assassin’s bullet missed Walls by inches during a rally in Gainesville. Niblack contested the election, claiming canvassers had thrown out Democratic ballots. Walls had served most of his two-year term before the House voted in Niblack’s favor and Walls was unseated. Undeterred, he ran again in 1872 and was again elected.
Following his second term, Walls used his Congressional salary to purchase a former cotton plantation. He also bought a newspaper, the Gainesville New Era.
Seeking a third term in 1874, Walls defeated a Conservative candidate Jesse T Finley in a vote that was pretty much strictly along racial lines. Again the election was contested. Finley claimed that some votes in Walls’ home Alachua County were invalid because Florida’s eligibility oath requirement was not correctly met. With Democrats now in control of Congress, Walls was again unseated.
Back in Florida, he had some considerable success as a farmer, growing cucumbers and tomatoes. After a freeze destroyed his crops in 1895, he took a position managing the farm at Florida Normal College (later renamed Florida A&M). He died in 1905.
The next time Florida would elect a Black representative was Carrie Meek in 1992. On that occasion the Tampa Tribune (Sept. 12,1992) looked back at Walls’ career:
“He survived three hard-fought campaigns. Walls was a spirited, bare-knuckle politician, but the tide was against him. The protection afforded by Reconstruction disappeared with the return to power of disenfranchised rebels. He quit politics in 1884, after one last lively but disastrous come-back effort.
“With the collapse of Reconstruction, racial segregation and oppression thwarted black political aspirations until the Civil Rights Movement forced passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. And even with that, it has taken another 27 years for a Florida black politician to win a seat in Congress. Maybe Carrie Meek’s victory moves us a little closer to achieving the justice sought by Josiah Walls so many years ago.”
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