Flashback Friday: Florida’s first African-American member of Congress

Walls_josiahRepublican Josiah T. Walls was Florida’s first African-American Congressman, and a powerful symbol of the Reconstruction era in the state. Walls was born into slavery in Virginia and captured by the Union Army during the Peninsula Campaign. Eventually he was discharged in Florida after the Battle of Olustee and settled in the Gainesville area.

Following the Union victory, carpetbagger/scalawag Republican governments took the state over from the secessionist Democrats and Walls quickly impressed the state’s new political leadership. He was elected to the State Senate in 1869 and was elected to Congress in 1871. By 1874, the Democrats had retaken control of the state and much like the violent behavior of the party’s establishment faction in other southern states, Florida’s Democrats were determined to eliminate black representation and reimpose single-party rule in the state.

The Democrats unseated Walls based on electoral “fraud” (the only actual fraud was the African-Americans and Republicans who were denied the ballot at gunpoint) and seated former Confederate Colonel Jesse Finley.

Soon thereafter Democratic establishment in the state threw its electoral votes to Rutherford B. Hays in the 1876 election in exchange for federal troops leaving the state. With Democrats in control of the state, African-Americans were soon disenfranchised, one-party status returned (no Republican would be elected to Congress again from Florida until 1954) and Walls political career was over. Florida would give Republicans its electoral votes only once between 1880 and 1950 and that was when the Democrats nominated “wet” (anti-prohibition) Catholic Al Smith in 1928. One party rule throughout the south was based largely on the premise of racial superiority. Only when the Republican Party decided to abandon its strong stand in favor of Civil Rights, did Republicans become even mildly competitive in the south.

Florida would not elect another African-American member of Congress until 1992, after reapportionment was done in accordance with the court’s interpretation of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

One comment

  1. Interesting, in part to his Gainesville and Olustee connections. Also interesting that Republicans and Democrats have switched their view on so many things.

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