Early Years and Civil War Service
Joseph Thomas Wilson was born free in Norfolk in January 1837. Few details of his early life survive, but existing documents suggest that his mother was a free woman of English and Native American descent and his father was enslaved. His father’s name was Brister or Bristol, and his mother was Louisa Wilson. When he was about nine years old Wilson revealed to city authorities the identity of a white fugitive from the state penitentiary, which led to the convict’s recapture but left Wilson vulnerable to reprisals. He was sent to New Bedford, Massachusetts, where he attended public school until 1855 and then went to sea aboard a whaler bound for the South Pacific. Wilson was working on a railroad construction crew in Chile when he received word in 1862 that the Civil War had broken out. He returned as soon as possible to the United States, traveling first to New York and from there to New Orleans where he hoped to be reunited with his father who had been sold south years before.
Wilson enlisted in September as a private in the 2d Louisiana Native Guard, a new regiment composed of African Americans and later reorganized as the 74th United States Colored Troops. After being hospitalized for chronic diarrhea and honorably discharged in September 1863, he returned to Massachusetts and enlisted in the famous 54th Massachusetts Infantry. Wilson was severely wounded in the back and abdomen in February 1864 at the Battle of Olustee, in Florida. He was honorably discharged in May and sent back to Massachusetts.
In September 1864, Wilson returned to Norfolk and reportedly worked for the secret service of the United States along the James River. At the end of the war, he was tending a government supply store that provided goods to freedpeople. On March 19, 1868, he married Elizabeth Hattie Smith. They had one son, one daughter, and a third child, all of whom died in childhood.
Journalism, Politics, and Civil Rights
Norfolk was a proving ground in which Southern Blacks could define freedom in the presence of white allies such as Northern missionaries and the U.S. Army, which had been in the city since 1862. On April 4, 1865, a group of Norfolk men, Wilson among them, established the Colored Monitor Union Club, dedicated to obtaining the right of suffrage. Later that spring they attempted the bold experiment of casting ballots in a local election for members of the General Assembly. In their address on “Equal Suffrage” the men portrayed themselves as guardians of Virginia’s future: “Give us the suffrage, and you may rely upon us … to keep the State forever in the Union.”
Wilson became a major voice in Black politics and journalism in Virginia. In April 1866 in the wake of a white mob’s attack on a Black parade in Norfolk, Wilson used the pages of the True Southerner, the local Unionist newspaper of which he had assumed the editorship, to defend Blacks’ citizenship rights. He asked archly, “Are we to be forbidden to hold national celebrations in our own country, lest we offend the enemy?” Vigilantes later ransacked the True Southerner offices, forcing the paper to shut down, but Wilson did not stand down. In 1867, Congress’s Reconstruction Acts enfranchised the freedmen, and Wilson played a prominent role at Republican Party conventions and events. His was a radical voice. In the April 1867 Republican Party State Convention at Richmond‘s First African Baptist Church, Wilson called for land confiscation and for the impeachment of Andrew Johnson, and the Richmond Daily Dispatch described Wilson as telling his fellow delegates that if they did not support a “platform of human rights” they were “no better than rebels.”
After the white Conservative Party seized control of the state government in 1869, Wilson continued to hold local offices in Norfolk and to secure Republican Party patronage appointments. He won election to a two-year term on Norfolk’s city council in 1870, served as an inspector of customs for the port of Norfolk for about a decade, and later was an officer with the Internal Revenue Service. Wilson joined prominent white Republicans in stumping for Ulysses S. Grant in the presidential election campaign of 1872, and in 1876 he was a Republican candidate for presidential elector for Rutherford B. Hayes. In August 1875 Wilson was among the delegates to a convention that met in Richmond to address the economic inequalities facing Black Virginians and during his speech called for unity in working to secure their civil rights.
In 1876 Conservatives in Virginia imposed a poll tax as a prerequisite for voting and disfranchised people convicted of petty theft in order to disfranchise African American men. Wilson was in the vanguard protesting the new measures, but the number of Blacks elected to the General Assembly declined until late in the 1870s. In April 1879 he expressed support for the Black “Exoduster” emigration movement to Kansas when he presided over a meeting of African Americans in Norfolk. Many Black Virginians took heart from the emergence in 1879 of the Readjuster Party, a reform-minded biracial coalition of Republicans and Democrats led by former Confederate general William Mahone that proposed to repudiate part of the antebellum state debt and reduce the rate of interest on it in order to protect services like public schooling. Wilson, though, regarded the Readjuster movement with suspicion, as he believed that white Readjusters saw Blacks as mere political pawns. He became a champion of the loyal Republican “straight-outs,” who tried to offer an alternative to the Funder-Democrats and to the Readjusters.
The Black Phalanx
Even as Wilson agitated for Black civil rights in Virginia he crafted a national reputation as a man of letters. After the demise of the True Southerner he contributed to the Union Republican, a Petersburg newspaper. He also wrote articles under the pseudonym “Eskiam” for a wide range of newspapers including the Washington, D.C.–based People’s Advocate and New National Era. He founded two short-lived newspapers in Norfolk, the American Sentinel in 1880 and the Right Way in 1885, and a Richmond weekly, the Industrial Day in 1888. Wilson published Emancipation: Its Course and Progress as a pamphlet in 1881 and enlarged it into an ambitious global history of abolition that he published in 1882. That year he also published Voice of a New Race, a volume of poems dedicated to his fallen United States Colored Troops comrades.
Wilson also earned the position of aide-de-camp to the commander in chief, at the rank of colonel in the Grand Army of the Republic, the venerable Union veterans’ organization. Members of the GAR commissioned him to write The Black Phalanx. Wilson’s press, the American Publishing Company of Hartford, Connecticut, undertook a robust publicity campaign for the book to sell it on subscription, the same way the company sold the books of its star author, Mark Twain. Wilson’s book earned considerable acclaim. Editor Irvine Garland Penn, an authority on Black literary culture, wrote in 1891 that sales of The Black Phalanx “surpasses that of any other work written by an Afro-American.” An 1898 advertisement for the book in the Richmond Planetinsisted that “every patriotic colored man, woman, and child” in America should own The Black Phalanx.
African American Soldiers Fighting for the Union
Wilson also described the slaughter of retreating and surrendering Black troops at the Battle of the Crater in Virginia on July 30, 1864, as an inhuman “repetition of the Fort Pillow Massacre.” He emphasized that it took a special kind of moral discipline for Black troops to face a foe that was fighting a “war of extermination against the negro soldiers” and yet refrain from acts of vengeance and retaliation against that foe. That former Confederates regarded William Mahone as the hero of the Crater helps explain why Wilson could never trust the Readjuster leader as a political ally. Wilson charged Mahone with pretending to be in favor of Black rights in order to increase his own power base; Mahone responded by using his patronage powers as a U.S. senator to secure Wilson’s removal from the customs service late in 1881.
Perhaps Wilson’s most revealing literary choice was his book’s title. A phalanx was an ancient Greek infantry formation that depended for success on total cohesion. It was just such unity that Wilson believed was missing from Black politics after Reconstruction. In the years he researched and wrote The Black Phalanx, political divisions plagued the Republican Party in Virginia. In July 1881, he urged African American voters to remain loyal to Republican principles in his widely published response to Frederick Douglass’s public support for the Readjusters. The Republican State Convention that met in August fractured, with Wilson’s straight-outs splitting with the Readjusters and holding a rump convention. Wilson was elected chairman of that convention, and the Lynchburg Virginian reported his opening speech as an appeal for “the Republicans to stand by their colors, and to surrender to no set of men their principles and manhood.” The convention divided about whether to nominate its own ticket of candidates for governor, lieutenant governor, and attorney general, and although some delegates nominated Wilson himself for governor he could not garner the necessary support to win the nomination. He gave a closing speech expressing his frustration and disappointment at the lack of solidarity among the delegates.
In 1885 Wilson moved from Norfolk to Richmond and threw himself into new projects— managing the nascent Galilean Fishermen’s Relief Association, supporting the Knights of Labor, serving as secretary of the committee responsible for organizing the African American exhibitions at the 1888 Virginia Agricultural, Mechanical, and Tobacco Exposition, and in 1890 protesting the disfranchisement of Black Virginians in testimony before a congressional committee.
Wilson waged a prolonged campaign to claim the veteran’s pension he believed was due him for disabilities he had sustained during the war. His pension application charts his descent into excruciating pain, traceable to wounds sustained at Olustee. Interspersed with the physicians’ reports in the file are testimonials from Wilson’s friends and associates who attempted to persuade the Pension Bureau that Wilson was not only a credible claimant but a man of distinction. The most revealing of these came in the winter of 1890 from John Mitchell Jr., the editor of the Richmond Planet who admired Wilson as a “man of good character and excellent habits,” but found him to be “badly broken up … with injuries wounds and diseases” which were “permanent.”
Less than a year later, on September 25, 1891, Wilson died of heart disease while visiting Norfolk. He was buried at Hampton National Cemetery near Fort Monroe, with military honors in a ceremony attended by a large throng of battle-scarred veterans both Black and white. His eulogist John Wesley Cromwell declared Wilson’s Black Phalanx to be the “proudest monument to his memory.” Historians of the Civil War and of the long civil rights struggle still frequently cite The Black Phalanx.
- Emancipation: Its Course and Progress from 1102 to 1875 (1881)
- Emancipation: Its Course and Progress from 1481 B.C. to 1875 A.D. (1882)
- Voice of a New Race (poems, 1882)
- The Black Phalanx; A History of the Negro Soldiers of the United States in the Wars of 1775–1812, 1861–’65 (1887)