In last week’s column we took a deep southern dive in our discussion of Vivian Malone. This week the dive continues to plumb even deeper than Georgia to Florida. And with our profile of Rep. Josiah Walls we travel farther back into the past as well, and like Malone a significant first can be added to his resume.
Walls was born into slavery in Winchester, Virginia, on Dec. 30, 1842. It was widely presumed that his father was Dr. John Walls, his master, with whom he kept a close relationship over the years. During the Civil War, Walls was forced into conscription as a Confederate artilleryman and was eventually captured by Union soldiers in 1862. After being emancipated by his captors, he briefly attended the county normal school in
Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Soon, he was a member of the 3rd Infantry Regiment of the U.S. Colored Troops and based in Philadelphia.
In 1864, his regiment moved to territory in Florida then occupied by Union forces. That June he was transferred to the 35th Regiment of the USCT where he became the first sergeant and artillery instructor. It was during this stint in Picolota, Fla. that he met and married Helen Fergueson, with whom he had one daughter. He was discharged from the military in October 1865 but chose to remain in Florida, subsequently gaining employment at a saw mill on the Suwannee River and later as a teacher with the Freedmen’s Bureau in Gainesville. A frugal, hard worker by 1868 he had saved enough money to purchase a 60-acre farm outside the city.
His ambitions were bolstered by the education he had acquired, giving him an advantage to improve his status in the political realm, unlike so many other Black men of his generation.
He launched his political career as a representative of the state’s Alachua County at the Florida constitutional convention in 1868, the same year he was elected a state assemblyman. In 1869, he was elected to the state senate and was among the five freedmen in the 24-member chamber. In 1871, he attended the Southern States Convention of Colored men in Columbia, S.C. It should be noted that Walls’ ascendance is not without incidence in these waning years of Reconstruction, still he and Black elected officials fought valiantly to hold to their positions. Black voters were consistently intimidated, especially by the rise and rage of the KKK. This fear and intimidation was also felt by white members of the Republican Party who were reluctant to support African American candidates that would possibly provoke a backlash from Democrats.
All of the threats and deceptive measures by the Democrats had practically splintered the Republican Party, and the contention in the party was intensified when scalawags (those white southerners who collaborated with northern Republicans for personal profit) and carpetbaggers (those whites who ventured South during Reconstruction to profit for it). When Walls sought to be the congressional representative from his region of the state in 1871 he was opposed by Silas Niblack, a former slave owner and a Confederate veteran of the Civil War. A key plank of Niblack’s campaign was his charge that Walls did not possess the education required to be a member of Congress. Walls challenged Niblack to a debate, and shortly thereafter an attempt was made on Walls’ life with a bullet narrowly missing him. Violence and turmoil marred the Election Day, but Walls emerged with a win, taking 627 more votes than Niblack of the nearly 25,000 cast. Walls presented his credentials in March 1871 and was sworn into Congress for a two year term and also given a seat on the Militia Committee.
Thus, Walls became the first African American to serve Florida in Congress. Despite his victory, he was unseated twice by the House Committee on Elections. Most of his time was spent fighting to hold his seat and advocating for compulsory education and economic opportunity for all races. “We demand that our lives, our liberties, and our property shall be protected by the strong arm of our government, that it gives us the same citizenship that it gives to those who it seems would … sink our every hope for peace, prosperity, and happiness into the great sea of oblivion.”
Meanwhile, Niblack was busy contesting the outcome of the election, contending that several counties’ Democratic votes were rejected by canvassers who were not legally allowed to do so. Walls countered that he had lost more votes to voter intimidation by the Klan, though he lacked evidence of this. It took the House Committee on Elections two years and the Republican majority ruled that Niblack was the winner, a rare instance of the committee ruling in favor of the minority party. Walls’ opponent had won a battle but the war between them was hardly over. When a four-way race took place in 1873, Walls came out on top defeating Niblack who came in third as a Conservative. Upon his return to Congress, Walls was assigned to the Committee on Expenditures in the Navy Department.
Somewhat free of the tumult of reelection, Walls now had time to devote to a number of pressing issues in Florida, which he dubbed “my own sunny state.” He was an avid promoter of tourism to the state, infrastructure improvements in telegraph lines, post offices and land-grant colleges. His congressional clout was felt from the farms to the cities, though he was unsuccessful in protecting the state’s orchards from foreign competition.
Most of the measures never gained traction, never made it out of committee. He did, however, manage to gain pensions for Seminole War veterans who fought several battles against the state’s indigenous population.
Among Walls’ most passionate demands were those waged for equality in education, particularly one entered in the Civil Rights Bill 1875, a measure that was struck from the bill just before the vote. Walls was exercised that he abstained from voting. “I reluctantly confess, after so many years of concessions, that unless partisan and sectional feeling shall lose more of its rancor in the future than has been experienced in the past…fundamental law will be disregarded, overthrown, and trampled underfoot, and a complete reign of terror and anarchy will rule supreme,” he said in his address to the House floor.
In 1874, Florida was split into two congressional districts, and Walls was the candidate in the eastern half of the peninsula, and this fractured the Republican Party and more trouble arrived with the economic depression.
Even so, Walls had maximized his entrepreneurial ventures, amassed considerable wealth, all of which gave him an advantage in the subsequent election. Once again he faced a formidable opponent and a member of the Whig Party. Voters, as expected, cast their ballots along party lines. And Walls won by a slim margin. He was now a member of the 44th Congress and assigned to the Committee on Mileage. He wasn’t securely in his seat before his opponent, as before, began a campaign to unseat, again citing certain illegalities.
Unlike the previous attempt to unseat him, Walls wasn’t as lucky this time and in 1878 his bid for re-nomination failed. But his political journey continued when he won a seat in the state senate, where he resumed his demand for compulsory public education. There were several other unsuccessful attempts to get back in Congress but ultimately he decided to settle into taking charge of the farm at Florida Normal College (now Florida A&M University) until his death on May 15, 1905. Oddly, his obituary wasn’t published in any of the mainstream Florida papers.