Florida’s Summer of Black Political Enthusiasm

“An awakening black interest in registration, voting and politics poured into this already complicated milieu in the summer of 1867. This was true in Alachua County as elsewhere in Florida, Josiah Walls soon found himself a new and rewarding career. In Alachua County, black registrants far exceeded whites, a result more of the conservative boycott than of disenfranchisement.”

Source: Josiah Walls: Florida’s Black Congressman of Reconstruction by Peter D. Klingman; University Press of Florida, 1976, p. 13

The ‘So-What?!’ Significance: Black voter enthusiasm propelled Josiah Walls into Congress as Florida’s first black member of the U.S. House. Black voter enthusiasm re-surfaced more recently in 2008 and 2012 with the success of President Barack Obama’s election and subsequent re-election. If blacks want to see continued progress, they had better re-kindle that enthusiasm at the polls.

Josiah Walls Succeeds Against Political Headwinds

Josiah T. Walls
Josiah T. Walls

“Political conditions in Florida began to change rapidly in the early 1870s. Republican expectations of permanent control of state government quickly dissipated into a struggle for survival. Two developments forced the moderate Republican leadership to consider nominating a Negro for statewide office.

First was the increased violence and terrorist activity that swept Florida during this period, and the other was the rapid advance  made by the rising tide of Conservative votes in state elections. Past performance, unmodified by these new political currents, would have negated the chances of any black politician for higher office. Because of these currents, however, Josiah Walls was nominated and elected to the House of Representatives.”

Source: Josiah Walls: Florida’s Black Congressman of Reconstruction by Peter D. Klingman; University Press of Florida, 1976 p. 30

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

A Black Law Firm Comes to Gainesville

Josiah T. Walls
Josiah T. Walls

[Josiah]Walls also began to practice law. During the spring term of the Alachua circuit court in 1873, he applied for and was granted admission to the Florida Bar. He went before an examination committee appointed by the judge of the circuit court. Three Gainesville attorneys, Robert Taylor,  George Arrow, local prosecutor, and Samuel Y. Finley, former mayor of Gainesville, found him competent in the law and made a favorable recommendation to the court. He was sworn in during the session. 

Eventually Walls, Henry Harmon, who had been admitted to the bar in 1874, joined forces in a Gainesville law firm providing legal services to Alachua County Negroes. Nothing is known of the firm itself, and there are no extant records. Although it is unlikely that many Florida lawyers could have received much formal education for the profession, and Negro lawyers even less, Walls at least had had some prior experience, having served on state legislative committees for judicial reform and parliamentary procedures. He gathered some background in the law as a result of his contest with [Silas] Niblack. No doubt he added more to his limited but empirical legal knowledge while in Congress.”

Source: Josiah Walls: Florida’s Black Congressman of Reconstruction by Peter D. Klingman A University of Florida Book, 1976 p. 53

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The Political Rise of Josiah T. Walls

“For [Josiah] Walls, the entrance into Florida politics had proved auspicious. In Alachua County he had established a firm power base and had indeed become a force in Florida, at least as a spokesman for his race. Because he could advance no farther in state circles, it seemed natural that he would in time set his sights for higher office.”

Source: Josiah Walls: Florida’s Black Congressman of Reconstruction by Peter D. Klingman; University Press of Florida, 1976, p. 29

Florida Congressman Speaks in Support of Civil Rights

Josiah T. Walls
Josiah T. Walls

“Men may concede that public sentiment, and not law, is the cause of the discrimination of which we justly complain and the resultant disabilities under which we labor. If this be so, then such public sentiment needs penal correction, and should be regulated by law. Let it be decidedly understood, by appropriate enactment, that the individual rights, privileges, and immunities of the citizens, irrespective of color, to all facilities afforded by corporations, licensed establishments, common carriers, and institutions supported by the public, are sacred, under the law, and that violations of the same will entail punishment safe and certain. We will then hear no more of a public sentiment that feeds upon the remnants of the rotten dogmas of the past, and seeks a vitality in the exercise of a tyranny both cheap and unmanly.” — Florida Congressman Josiah T. Walls addressing the Civil Rights Act of 1875

Source: Neglected Voices, New York University School of Law

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Dirty Politics — 19th Century Style

“… demonizing [Josiah] Walls as both a Northerner and a product of miscegenation served a doable purpose. It robbed Florida’s black people of a hero. It sustained whites in their illusion that half-breeds and Yankees caused all that trouble.”

Source: Finding Florida: The True History of the Sunshine State by T.D. Allman  Grove Press, 2013 p. 262