Florida’s Black Militia

Blacks, free and slave, had been resident in Spanish East Florida since the first years of its settlement. While details are lacking, it is probable they served as individual members of the local militia during periods of extreme crisis, as during the Drake attack of 1585 and the Guale Indian Revolt of 1598-1599. However, it is not until 1683 that documentary evidence identifies a specific local militia unit as the company of pardes y morenos (free men of color).

It is fairly certain that the black militia company of Spanish Florida enjoyed virtually continuous existence from 1683 to 1763. Prior to 1720, it is probable that the black militia unit’s officers and sergeants were white Spaniards. After 1726, and through the period of the English invasion of Florida in 1740, probably until the British occupied Florida after 1763, the unit’s officers and sergeants were almost certainly black. The commander of the black militia company from 1726 until sometime after 1742 was a local “free man of color,” Francisco Menendez. He was its commander during the successful assault on English-held Fort Mose in 1740. Menendez was also a man of property, having personally paid for the rebuilding of two bastions in the city defense wall.

Black Floridians would serve prominently in the East Florida Rangers, Florida’s British militia during the American Revolution and would, once more, have their own local militia company during the Second Period of Spanish Occupation in Florida, 1783-1821. During the early period of American occupation in Florida, 1821-1865, there would be no organized black Florida militia; most blacks were slaves, and the less than 1000 free blacks in Florida were prohibited from bearing arms. Between 1865 and 1901 there were black units of the enrolled state militia but they received no state support and no encouragement to become active units.

Until the mid-1960s, blacks were not allowed to join the organized volunteer militia, later the Florida National Guard. Since that time, black Floridians have been encouraged to join and serve in the Guard and, now, many serve. Those black Floridians who serve today honor a long and worthy tradition. They have served Florida for more than 400 years.

Source: Hawk, Robert. Florida’s Army: Militia, State Troops, National Guard, 1565-1985. Englewood, Fla: Pineapple Press, 1986.