Josiah Thomas Walls became a major political figure during the post-Civil War period of Reconstruction. He often placed party interest and the national welfare above strict racial allegiance. As an early black political figure in the state of Florida, he had the distinction of participating in many political campaigns and elections. In 1870, he became the first African American from Florida to be elected to the United States Congress and served as the state's only representative. He also served one term in the Florida House and two terms in the Senate. He was twice elected to the House and twice unseated by challenges to his elections by his opponents.
Walls was born a slave near Winchester, Virginia (Frederick County) on December 30, 1842. When he was a child, his mother moved to Darkesville in what later became West Virginia. He briefly attended the county normal school in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and may have received additional education. He was forced into service in the Confederate Army, serving in an artillery battery, only to be captured by Union troops in 1862 at Yorktown.
He attended school for a year in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and in 1863 he joined the Third Infantry Regiment of the United States Colored Troops, organized at Camp Penn, near Philadelphia, obtaining the rank of corporal. The unit took part in the assault on Fort Wagner, South Carolina (July 1863), and in the Florida campaign (February and March 1864). Walls also had assignments at Baldwin, Jacksonville, and Picalata. He was appointed heavy and light artillery instructor to the troops, defending Jacksonville and the St. John's River.
Walls married Helen Fergueson in Newnansville, when she was only sixteen, on December 9, 1864. She was the daughter of Armstrong Fergueson, who was originally from South Carolina. Walls and his wife had only one child, a daughter Nettie Walls.
Walls was discharged from the Union Army in Florida in October 1865 and settled in Alachua County where he began working at a sawmill on the Suwannee River. He later taught school at Archer in Alachua County.
Launches Political Career
Like many blacks, Walls joined the Republican Party and became politically active with the politics of Reconstruction, and in 1867 he was elected to represent Alachua County at the upcoming Florida Constitutional Convention. In 1868, he attended the convention held in Tallahassee. He was one of only eighteen black delegates who attended the convention. The county convention of March 1868 also nominated Walls for the state assembly; he was elected and took his seat in June. Later that same year he was elected to the state senate from the Thirteenth District and took his seat the following January.
Walls participated in several national conventions, which were held to discuss problems facing blacks. At the Southern States Convention of Colored Men in 1871, he proposed an amendment to a resolution of support for President Ulysses S. Grant, which called on the Republicans to nominate John Mercer Langston for vice president in 1872.
- Born in Winchester, Virginia on December 30
- Captured at Yorktown, Virginia by Union troops
- Enters the Third Infantry Regiment, United States Colored Troops of Philadelphia
- Moves with regiment to Florida
- Discharged; works at a sawmill on Suwannee
- Delegate to the Florida State constitutional convention
- Elected to the state senate from the Thirteenth District
- Nominated for the state's lone seat in the House of Representatives
- Presents credentials as a member-elect to the Forty-second Congress
- Reelected and presents credentials as a member-elect to the Forty-fourth Congress
- Elected to the state senate
- Takes indefinite leave from the state senate
- Beaten by Horatio Bisbee for the Republican nomination to the House
- Defeated in another bid for the state senate
- Slips into ill health and loses his fortune due to weather conditions
- Dies in Tallahassee, Florida on May 15
Before the legislative reapportionment that was based on the census of 1870, Walls, who was under the age of thirty, became the first African American from Florida to be elected to the United States Congress where he appeared to win a narrow victory. This was Florida's only seat in Congress at that time. He took his seat, as a Republican member of the House of Representatives (March 4, 1871), accepting assignments on the Militia, the Committee on Mileage, and the Committee on Expenditures in the Navy Department. However, he was unseated following a protest by his defeated opponent, Silas L. Niblack, of Lake City. Niblack disputed the election five days after Walls won, charging that officials had unfairly rejected some of his votes while accepting Walls' illegal ballots. Though it was Walls who protested that voters were intimidated at the polls, the House Committee on Elections unseated Walls by declaring Niblack the winner on January 29, 1873. Still Walls had the last laugh because Niblack held office for less than two months before it was time for the next election. Walls had served almost twenty-three months in the 42nd Congress before being ousted.
When the state was divided into two districts in 1872, Walls ran for Congress and again won election, but this time to a full term. This election posed Walls against Niblack, and Walls beat him by a majority of seventeen hundred votes. So Niblack replaced Walls and served for two months before Walls was once again back in office.
Walls was a strong proponent of a national public education system that could be funded by the sales of public lands as well as mandatory schooling for all children and put forth bills that supported a federal education system for all children. He realized that education was the key for resolving many of the social problems, injustices, and oppressions that existed in the United States. He also introduced bills for relief of private pensioners and Seminole War veterans. One of his most significant bills was aimed at granting military support to the Cubans in their revolt against the colonial oppression of Spain. Spain had brought African slaves to Cuba to work the sugar and tobacco plantations and had wiped out the Indian inhabitants by treating them inhumanely. None of his bills was successful; however, Walls lived to see his dream realized when Cuba became independent in 1898, and the United States obtained a protectorate over Cuba in 1902.
The fifty-one bills Walls introduced during his five years in Congress covered such issues as private pensions, internal improvements of waterways and harbors, establishing mail routes, relief for men who had served in the Seminole Wars and for Florida citizens who had lost property during the Civil War, and general amnesty. He abstained from the final vote on the Civil Rights Bill (February 5, 1875) because it omitted reference to public schools.
Walls was re-elected in 1874, but the results were challenged by his opponent—former Confederate general Jesse Johnson Finley of Jacksonville, Florida. Walls served from March 4, 1875 to April 19, 1876. The subsequent recount gave the election to Finley. A majority of six Democrats and one Independent Republican of the Committee on Elections reported that Walls' votes in one Columbia county precinct had been tampered with by the Republican state senate candidate who had been mysteriously murdered in August 1875 and should be deleted from Walls' total, thereby making Finley the winner. The committee's three Republicans maintained that the disputed ballots, which had been burned in a suspicious courthouse fire, were not cast illegally and that Walls was entitled to his seat. The Democratic controlled House adopted the majority report, and Walls' congressional career ended.
In August 1876 Walls, without party support, was defeated by Horatio Bisbee for re-nomination to the House. In November, he was elected to the state senate, where be became a champion of mandatory public education.
Frustrated by his political isolation and overwhelmed with feelings of futility, Walls took an indefinite leave of absence in February 1879 and left the state senate. Upon his return to Alachua County, Walls owned and operated a successful tomato and lettuce farm, sawmill, and orange grove. He also remained interested in political developments. In 1884, after again being beaten by Bisbee for the Republican nomination to the House, he ran as an independent candidate but was unsuccessful. In the fall of 1890 he was defeated in another bid for the state senate.
In addition to his federal and state service, Walls was also mayor of Gainesville and a member of the Alachua County commission. His passion, and later his livelihood, was farming. He earned enough from his large farm, in what later became Paynes Prairie, to establish a newspaper, titled Special attention to the wants and interests of People of Color.
During the last years of his life, Walls faced personal tragedy, financial misfortune, and illness. On New Year's Day in 1885, Helen Fergueson Walls died, after nineteen years of marriage. Then he married Ella Angeline Gass, the first cousin of his deceased wife, on July 5, 1885, who was only fourteen, in Gainesville, Florida.
He slipped into ill health, and a hard freeze killed his orange grove and wiped him out financially in 1895. He moved his family to Tallahassee where he was director of the farm at the state's agricultural college that later became Florida Agricultural and Mechanical (A&M) University. Walls did not mention his past political career after moving to Tallahassee. He did not become involved with the political or social climate in Tallahassee. He spent most of his leisure time at home with his second wife and daughter. His home was a small white house that he purchased from J. F. Montgomery in 1900 for $350.
In 1900, Walls' daughter Nettie succumbed to a behavior problem and became a recluse, shutting herself in the house for long periods of time. Eventually Nettie killed a little girl, Maggie Gibbs, the daughter of a minister. The child was found stabbed and shot and stuffed in a closet at the Walls' home.
Apparently Nettie was involved with the minister who was a widower. They had broken off the relationship, and she sought revenge. Because of her mental condition she was sent to the state psychiatric institution at Chattahoochee, where she died after some months. Walls never recovered from these events.
Walls died in Tallahassee on May 15, 1905 and was buried in a black cemetery in Tallahassee, Florida. To commemorate his life, in Gainesville a plaque was placed on the site of his home on the northeast corner of West University Avenue and Northwest First Street.
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Klingman, Peter D. Josiah Walls, Florida's Black Congressman of Reconstruction. Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 1976.
Lindenmeyer, Otto J. "Josiah T. Walls: U.S. Congressman." In Negroes in Public Affairs and Government. Vol. 1. Ed. Walter Christmas. New York: Educational Heritage, Inc., 1966.
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"Walls, Josiah T." In Afro-American Encyclopedia. Vol. 9. North Miami, Fla.: Educational Book Publishers, Inc., 1974.