Thomas P. Honsa


The American civil rights movement usually brings to mind cities such as Montgomery, Birmingham, Memphis and Washington, D.C. In Florida, however, one of the most significant events of the civil rights era occurred without fanfare in the small, west coast town of Palmetto. It was here in 1964 that the color barrier was broken in one of the state's largest whites-only organizations, The Florida Army National Guard. For the first time in post-colonial history, African-Americans were enlisted into the state's military. Prior to American control, African Americans did play a military role in Florida. State guard officials claim that the first black militia unit in North America was formed under Spanish rule in 1683. The company of "free men of color" was commanded by a free black, Francisco Menendez until at least 1742. Free black Floridians also served the British during the American War for Independence and Spain again during the Second Period of Spanish Occupation. Historian Robert Hawk notes that while black units enrolled in the state militia from 1865 to 1901, "they received no state support and no encouragement to become active units."1