We previously featured a post on Hiram Revels, the first African American member of the United States Senate. Today’s post focuses on another member of the group of African American legislators who arrived to Congress during the Reconstruction period, Representative Josiah Walls, who served in the 42nd, 43rd, and 44th Congresses.
Josiah Walls was born into slavery in Winchester, Virginia, on December 30, 1842. During the Civil War, he was forced to become a servant to a Confederate artilleryman. In May of 1862, he was captured by the Union and emancipated. He briefly attended the Normal School in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania and then joined the United States Colored Troops 3rd Infantry Regiment in 1863. He was initially stationed in Philadelphia, but in 1864 his regiment moved to Northern Florida. Walls later transferred to the 35th Regiment, in which he served as a first sergeant and artillery instructor. After the conclusion of the Civil War, he remained in Florida, married Helen Fergueson, and had one daughter, Nellie.
Walls worked at a sawmill and as a teacher in the Freedmen’s Bureau to save enough money to purchase a 60 acre farm, and also began to cultivate an interest in politics. He served as a delegate for Alachua County to the 1868 Florida Constitutional Convention, and shortly thereafter was elected to the Florida State House of Representatives, as well as the Florida State Senate.
In 1870, Walls was nominated by the Republican party as a candidate to represent Florida in the United States House of Representatives. Walls’ opponent was Silas Niblack, a former slave owner and Confederate veteran, who claimed that Walls lacked the education needed to serve in Congress. Walls responded to his opponent’s criticism by challenging Niblack to a debate and engaging in a public speaking tour of Northern Florida. At one event in Gainesville, Walls was nearly struck by a bullet.
Walls prevailed in the election, and during his tenure in Congress, he advocated for internal improvements in Florida, pensions for war veterans, and a national system of education financed through the sale of public lands. Walls’ passion for education is evident in the debate copied below, where Walls debates Representative Archibald MacIntyre of Georgia, a former Confederate officer, over a proposal to create a national system of education.
Two years into Walls’ term of office, Niblack successfully challenged the election results in the House Committee on Elections, claiming some Democratic ballots had been illegally rejected (see page 106 of Hind’s Precedents). As a result, Walls lost his seat. Nevertheless, Walls was re-elected to the House of Representatives in the 43rd Congress.
After the conclusion of the 43rd Congress, Walls purchased a Gainesville newspaper that he used to campaign for his election to the 44th Congress against Jesse Finley. Walls defeated Finley, but Finley successfully challenged the election results in the House Committee on Elections, so Walls once against lost his seat (see page 124 of Hind’s Precedents).
Walls successfully stood for election to the Florida State Senate again in 1876, but his subsequent efforts in national politics were unsuccessful. After retiring from politics, Walls operated a successful farm, but an 1895 freeze destroyed his crops, so he took a position operating the farm at Florida Normal College (now Florida A&M University). Josiah Walls died in Tallahassee on May 15, 1905, but by that time, he had slipped into obscurity and no Florida newspaper published his obituary. His burial place is unknown.
Source: H.Doc. 108-224 Black Americans in Congress, 1870-2007.