Jennifer Carroll, Florida’s 1st Black Lieutenant Governor, among the State’s First Generation of African-American Political Leaders

Jan 14, 2011

The following article was published in the Sunshine News on January 14, 2011:

Florida’s First Generation of African-American Political Leaders

When Jennifer Carroll was sworn in as Florida’s 18th lieutenant governor, she became the first African-American in the state’s history to hold that position. But while the likes of Carroll and former U.S. Rep. Carrie Meek are trailblazers, they are also following in the footsteps of a generation of African-American leaders who shaped Florida greatly in the turbulent and often chaotic years that followed the Civil War.

While largely forgotten today, this generation of Floridians played a leading role in the state’s politics in the late 1860s and early 1870s.

One of the most prominent African-American political leaders was Jonathan Clarkson Gibbs, a Dartmouth graduate and a minister who moved to Florida in 1867. One of the leaders of the Mule Team faction of the Republicans, Gibbs played a prominent part in shaping the state’s Constitution in 1868 and called for greater rights for African-Americans. Gibbs often clashed with the more moderate members of his party, including Harrison Reed. Despite their differences, Reed appointed Gibbs to serve as his secretary of state. Gibbs would later serve as state superintendent of public instruction before dying at the age of 52 in Tallahassee. His son Thomas would attend the 1886 state constitutional convention, serve in the Florida House and help found what would become Florida A&M University.


While Gibbs focused on state politics, Josiah Walls played a role in national affairs. Born into slavery in Virginia, Walls was released by the Union army which he would eventually join before heading to Florida in the late stages of the war. Walls would work as a teacher and farmer near Gainesville before representing Alachua County in the 1868 constitutional convention before winning election to the Legislature later that year.

As the Republicans continued to factionalize during Reed’s tenure in office — the governor himself survived four impeachment attempts — Walls ran for Congress in 1870 in what proved to be one of the most chaotic and violent campaigns in the state’s history. Walls himself came very close to being assassinated during the campaign. While Walls would win the election by more than 600 votes, the House Committee on Elections would eventually overturn the decision.

Walls would bounce back to win a second and third term only to once again have the Committee on Elections rule that he had, in fact, lost the election. He would later serve in the Florida Senate in the late 1870s but subsequent comeback attempts failed. He would join Thomas Gibbs in helping found Florida A&M before his death in 1905.

John Willis Menard could probably understand Walls’ frustrations. The first African-American ever elected to Congress when he lived in Louisiana in 1868, Menard — who was born in Illinois and educated at Iberia College in Ohio — was denied his congressional seat. Moving to Jacksonville in 1871, Menard would be elected to the state House in 1874. He published various newspapers and magazines, including the Island City News, the Florida News and the Southern Leader. Menard also wrote “Lays of Summer Lands,” a collection of lyrical and often haunting poems covering politics, religion, nature, love and race. His daughter Alice would eventually marry Thomas Gibbs.

While many of the state’s first generation African-American political leaders hailed from other states, there were some who were from Florida. Perhaps the most prominent of these native sons was Gadsden County’s Robert Meacham, a minister who also took part in shaping the 1868 Constitution and served in the Senate. Incidentally, Meacham helped found the African Methodist Episcopalian (AME) Church in Florida. The AME, which was founded in Philadelphia earlier in the century, greatly helped in the education of the freedmen. In 1866, former slaves founded the Brown Theological Institute in Jacksonville which became, as the years went by, Edward Waters College.

Perhaps the hopes of this generation of important leaders were best expressed in Menard’s poem “Florida” which was published in 1879 — long after his electoral career had stalled.

Sweet ocean goddess, divinely fair and free,
Outstretching far into the summer sea,

As if to catch the constant ocean breeze
That swiftly speeds over the gulf and seas!

Thou art a fairy land — a “Land of Flowers,”
With towering pines and vine-clad bowers —

With boundless lakes and broad, majestic streams,
That bask forever in bright, sunny gleams.

Dear sunny land of orange and balmy sky,
Where summer reigns and flowers never die!

Thrice bless’d art thou, with trees forever green,
And varied fruit, with air and clime serene.

Long hast thou groaned ‘neath burdens of the Past, —
Ravaged by wars and by oppression blast:

But now take hope — thy future shall be bright,
Thy chains have fallen, and ended is thy night.

Thy wasted fields and trees will yield again:
Redoubled harvests shall thy sons regain.

Thy hidden wealth, and healing balmy clime,
And charming scenery, varied and sublime,

Must lure from every clime, from every land,
Uncounted thousands to thy shores of sand.

And these will summon forth, with skilful toil,
The hidden treasures of thy wasted soil.

Take hope and rise, land of the fig and pine!
Thy woes are ended and new life is thine.

Labor and Liberty, and wealth and power,
Henceforth will be thy allotted dower!