Born into slavery in 1842, Josiah Thomas Walls was the first African-American to serve Florida in Congress.
Walls, who was born in Virginia, first came to Florida while serving in the Union Army during the Civil War. Following his discharge, Walls decided to stay, eventually moving to Gainesville, where he worked as a school teacher and bought a farm.
He was Alachua County's representative to the state's 1868 constitutional convention and began serving in the Florida House of Representatives the same year. In 1869, he was elected to the Florida State Senate.
Walls was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1870 as Florida's sole member of the body. He took his seat the following year and would serve until 1876.
On two occasions, he was unseated by the U.S. House Committee on Elections after his election was contested by an opponent. Silas L. Niblack, his opponent in the 1870 election, successfully contested the election and interrupted Walls' term from late January to early March 1873.
Walls, who won re-election in the 1872 election, was sworn in again in March 1873 — this time, he was one of two U.S. Representatives from Florida. The state added a second seat that year following the 1870 census reapportionment. However, elections for the seats were elected statewide at-large on a general ticket until 1874, when the state was split into two congressional districts.
Prior to the 43rd United States Congress (1873-1875), when the state was reapportioned a second seat in the U.S. House, Florida had one U.S. Representative, who was elected at-large statewide. Florida's second congressional district, which Walls served, came into existence at the beginning of the 44th United States Congress (1875-1877). Courtesy of the State Archives of Florida.
Walls won the 1874 election for the state's newly created second congressional district. Nevertheless, Jesse J. Finley, a Confederate Army Brigadier General during the Civil War, successfully contested the election and Walls was removed from his seat for the second time by the U.S. House Committee on Elections in April 1876.
Following his unseating, Walls served in the Florida Senate from January 1877 to February 1879, when he took a leave of absence.
The 1877 Senate Journal shows Walls as the state senator for the Florida Senate's 13th District. Courtesy of the Florida Senate.
In addition to his service in the U.S. House and Florida State Senate, he spent periods as Gainesville's mayor, a member of the Alachua County School Board and a member of the Alachua County Commission.
Following a freeze that decimated his crops in 1895, Walls moved from Alachua County to Tallahassee, where he worked as the farm director at what is now Florida A&M University.
Walls died in Tallahassee on May 15, 1905.
On October 16, 2016, Alachua County dedicated the new home of the Alachua County Property Appraiser and Alachua County Supervisor of Elections in honor of Josiah T. Walls. The building is located in Gainesville at 515 N. Main Street.