GM – FBF – Today’s American Champion fought on both sides of the Civil War, served as Gainesville’s mayor and became Florida’s first black representative.

GM – FBF – Today’s American Champion fought on both sides of the Civil War, served as Gainesville’s mayor and became Florida’s first black representative. But when he died, few heard of it. Without a word and without a marker.He might be one of the lesser-known black Florida leaders in the state’s history. He was born into slavery in 1842 in Winchester, Virginia. He later became the only person in Alachua County’s history to serve as the Gainesville mayor, a county commissioner, a school board member, a state senator and a U.S. congressman. With that, he laid the groundwork for the Civil Rights era to come a century after him, but many today are surprised to learn he ever existed.Today in our History – December 30, 1842 – Josiah Thomas Walls was born.Overcoming deep political divisions in the Florida Republican Party, Josiah Walls became the first African American to serve his state in Congress. The only black Representative from Florida until the early 1990s, Walls was unseated twice on the recommendation of the House Committee on Elections.When he was not fiercely defending his seat in Congress, Walls fought for internal improvements for Florida. He also advocated 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.”Josiah Thomas Walls was born into slavery in Winchester, Virginia, on December 30, 1842. He was suspected to be the son of his master, Dr. John Walls, and maintained contact with him throughout his life. When the Civil War broke out, Walls was forced to be the private servant of a Confederate artilleryman until he was captured by Union soldiers in May 1862. Emancipated by his Union captors, Walls briefly attended the county normal school in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. By July 1863, Josiah Walls was serving in the Union Army as part of the 3rd Infantry Regiment of United States Colored Troops (USCT) based in Philadelphia. His regiment moved to Union–occupied northern Florida in February 1864. The following June, he transferred to the 35th Regiment USCT, where he served as the first sergeant and artillery instructor. While living in Picolota, Florida, Walls met and married Helen Fergueson, with whom he had one daughter, Nellie. He was discharged in October 1865 but decided to stay in Florida, working at a saw mill on the Suwannee River and, later, as a teacher with the Freedmen’s Bureau in Gainesville. By 1868, Walls had saved enough money to buy a 60–acre farm outside the city.One of the few educated black men in Reconstruction–Era Florida, Walls was drawn to political opportunities available after the war. He began his career by representing north–central Florida’s Alachua County in the 1868 Florida constitutional convention. That same year, Walls ran a successful campaign for state assemblyman. The following fall, he was elected to the state senate and took his seat as one of five freedmen in the 24–man chamber in January 1869. Josiah Walls attended the Southern States Convention of Colored Men in 1871 in Columbia, South Carolina.After gaining traction in 1867, the Florida Republican Party disintegrated into factions controlled by scalawags and carpetbaggers—each group fighting for the loyalty of a large constituency of freedmen. The disorganized GOP faced another grim situation when their nominating convention met in August 1870.The three previous years would be remembered as the apex of anti–black violence in the state, orchestrated by the well–organized Jacksonville branches of the Ku Klux Klan. In the face of such unrestrained intimidation, Florida freedmen were widely expected to avoid the polls on Election Day.Fearing conservative Democrats would capture the election in the absence of the black vote, state GOP party leaders—a group made up entirely of white men from the scalawag and carpetbagger factions—agreed that nominating a black man to the state’s lone At–Large seat in the U.S. House of Representatives would renew black voters’ courage and faith in the Republican Party. Passing over the incumbent, former Union soldier Representative Charles Hamilton, the state convention delegates advanced the names of their favorite black candidates. Fierce competition between the nominees led tounruly debate as well as attempts to cast fraudulent votes, and almost resulted in rioting. Walls’s reputation as an independent politician who would not fall under the control of a single faction gave him the edge, and the convention selected him for the party’s nomination on the 11th ballot. The narrow victory was not encouraging for Walls. In the general election, he would confront not only Democratic opposition but also the doubts of his own party.Walls faced former slave owner and Confederate veteran Silas L. Niblack in the general election. Niblack immediately attacked Walls’s capabilities, arguing that a former slave was not educated enough to serve in Congress.Walls countered these charges by challenging his opponent to a debate and speaking at political rallies throughout northern Florida (the most populous section of the state). The campaign was violent; a would–be assassin’s bullet missed Walls by inches at a Gainesville rally, and Election Day was tumultuous. As one Clay County observer noted, Florida had been “turned upside down with politics and the election.” Walls emerged victorious, taking just 627 more votes than Niblack out of the more than 24,000 cast. After presenting his credentials on March 4, 1871, he was immediately sworn in to the 42nd Congress (1871–1873) and given a seat on the Committee on the Militia.Walls feared the cause of public education would languish if it were left to the states. During the 43rd Congress, he enthusiastically supported a measure to establish a national education fund financed by the sale of public land. Walls addressed this issue in his first major floor speech on February 3, 1872: “I believe that the national Government is the guardian of the liberties of all its subjects,” Walls said. “Can [African Americans] protect their liberties without education; and can they be educated under the present condition of society in the States where they were when freed? Can this be done without the aid, assistance, and supervision of the General Government? No, sir, it cannot.” The bill passed with amendments protecting a state’s right to segregated education and granting states greater control over the distribution of federal funds, but the money was never appropriated. Walls’s support for education was further frustrated when the Civil Rights Bill—a battered piece of legislation seeking to eliminate discrimination in public accommodations, first introduced in 1870—came to a vote in February 1875. In November 1876, Walls won a seat in the Florida state senate, where he championed his cause of compulsory public education. Ultimately frustrated by the futility of Republican politics after the collapse of Reconstruction, he took a permanent leave of absence in February 1879.The opportunity to face his old foe Bisbee for the Republican nomination to a Florida U.S. House seat lured him back into politics in 1884. He lost and then ran unsuccessfully in the general election as an Independent candidate. In 1890, Walls lost another bid for the state senate. In 1885, his wife, Helen Fergueson Walls, died and Josiah Walls married her young cousin, Ella Angeline Gass.His successful farm was destroyed when his crops froze in February 1895. Walls subsequently took charge of the farm at Florida Normal College (now Florida A&M University), until his death in Tallahassee on May 15, 1905, interment in the Negro Cemetery. Josiah Walls had fallen into such obscurity, no Florida newspaper published his obituary. Research more about this great American Champion and share it with your babies. Make it a champion day!