The Highwaymen

Speed-Painting In The Sunshine State

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Painting by Mary Ann Carroll

Who Are They?

If you traveled by way of Florida's Route 1 in the 1960s, you might have encountered a young, African-American artist, selling a lushly painted oil landscape from his car. They weren't allowed in galleries during Jim Crow segregation -- but motels, office buildings and tourists would buy their vivid works.

Together, they formed a loosely associated band around Fort Pierce, Fla., that came to be known as The Highwaymen. At $20 a painting, they made their way out of agricultural jobs like citrus-picking and defined the cultural look of an era.

Their paintings departed from an earlier tradition of landscape painting in Fort Pierce. A.E. "Beanie" Backus, considered the father of the landscape movement there, caught the clouds and savannahs and inlets that were falling to developers in the mid-century. He would teach many youngsters who came to his studio, including the teenage Alfred Hair, leader of The Highwaymen.

These artists would take off in their own direction. But success has brought enduring tensions on their home turf, raising questions about art, race and cultural legacy.

Photographs courtesy of Gary Monroe (Not all 26 Highwaymen are included in this gallery.)

Meet Al Black: Former Salesman, Ex-Convict, Current Highwayman

Courtesy of the State Archives of Florida

The who's who of The Highwaymen can be tricky. (A curator named Jim Fitch coined the name in the '90s and it stuck.) Gary Monroe, author of The Highwaymen, Florida's African-American Landscape Artists, counts 26 original painters -- 18 of whom are still living. That's how many were inducted into the Florida Artists Hall of Fame in 2004.

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Al Black is one of them. He's a smooth talker who could "sell a jacket to a mosquito in summer," says Mary Ann Carroll, 71, another of the 26 inductees.

Painting by Al Black (Courtesy of Gary Monroe/University Press of Florida)

But Black had humble origins. He was born on a plantation in Mississippi and moved to Fort Pierce to pick fruit in his early teens. Art would eventually be his way out of that life.

He started out as a salesman for The Highwaymen in the 1960s, trawling Route 1 on their behalf -- often raising the price tag and pocketing the difference. "Of the many salesmen, Al Black was in a class all his own," writes Monroe. "Signs prohibiting solicitation or those banning Negroes did not intimidate him."

A salesman is a con man," Black readily admits today, smiling.

Business was strong for years. Then came the fateful day in 1970 when one of the group's leaders, Alfred Hair, was murdered in a bar. After that, the organization gradually declined, but Black kept at it – and when he needed more paintings to sell, he became a painter himself.

Tastes change, though, and by the ‘90s, demand for the paintings had all but dried up. And in 1995, Black had his own crisis.

Painting by Al Black (Courtesy of Gary Monroe/University Press of Florida)

"I didn't know what to do with myself, so I was introduced to crack cocaine," he says. "It led to a conviction."

And that chapter of his life led to prison, where he spent 12 years and, once again, picked up his paintbrushes. When it was discovered he was a Highwayman, Black was given unprecedented permission to paint murals throughout state correctional facilities, like the Central Reception Center in Orlando, where they remain to this day. Author Gary Monroe has taken pictures of Black's prison portraits and compiled a book, The Highwaymen Murals: Al Black's Concrete Dreams.

Now out of prison, Black still paints.

"I can be down and out," he says, "feeling bad that morning. But if I can make it out to where I paint, everything picks up ... and makes me feel real good."

Listen to the story - Jacki Lyden reports

Video by Dave Anderson / Oxford American Magazine

The Background: A.E. "Beanie" Backus

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Courtesy of the State Archives of Florida

The Highwaymen acknowledge that they were inspired -- and that one of their founders, Alfred Hair, was taught -- by the "dean" of the Florida landscape school, A.E. "Beanie" Backus.

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Born in Fort Pierce in 1906, Backus painted romantically, luminously and masterfully, inspired by Florida's wild coastal beauty. He was the first native Floridian to paint Florida year-round, capturing the subtle way the seasons changed, the gusts of wind that came off the ocean and curved the palm trees like sabers arching over the water.

Backus was exceptional in other ways. Jim Crow was in force in Fort Pierce, which, in his youth, was literally segregated by train tracks and was the site of Ku Klux Klan marches. And yet Backus kept his studio doors open to anyone of color -- and everyone came. He loved jazz. He was friendly with Harlem Renaissance author Zora Neale Hurston, who spent her last years in Fort Pierce.

Backus gave jobs to students like Hair, a young black aspiring artist whose art teacher, Zanobia Jefferson, took him to the Backus studio on a field trip in the 1960s. Hair started building canvases for Backus, and was soon painting on his own. A smart young man in a hurry to make money, he took the landscape techniques and reworked them, painting faster and faster. Hair and his friends taught each other, staying up late, painting by lamplight – then hitting the road with their work.

Fast, cheap and appealing: That would become the business strategy behind the whole Highwaymen enterprise -- and it did become an enterprise. Sometimes, painters could make hundreds of dollars a day on paintings that cost only about $20 to create. No one else was doing that.

But today, some say The Highwaymen have all but eclipsed the legend of Backus; and at the Backus museum, that has caused a lingering resentment.

Listen to the story - Jacki Lyden reports

Photos courtesy of the A.E. Backus Museum and Gallery

The Murder Of A Protege: The Story Of Alfred Hair

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Courtesy of the State Archives of Florida

Alfred Hair was a stand-out student at Lincoln Academy High School, when his teacher took him to meet A.E. Backus, who then encouraged him to paint. Hair would spend days helping Backus and at night, would travel back across the train tracks to the African-American part of town.

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Hair soon had his own ideas about landscapes: He would emulate the much-loved style of Backus but get it done fast, and sell it on the cheap. Backus, some say, admired his enterprise, but wished he'd slow down.

Yet Hair was on the move. Back then, his goal was to sell enough to get himself a car -- the ultimate status symbol -- though he did vow to become a millionaire by the time he was 35. Driving up and down the main drag of Fort Pierce, James Brown blasting from the radio, he became something of a local celebrity, at least among the African-American community on Avenue D.

And Hair wasn't the only painter of his kind. Harold Newton had figured it out. So had James Gibson. The painters were only loosely affiliated; they were somewhat competitive, but they all made money and were the envy of their peers.

The Highwaymen -- although they wouldn't earn that nickname until decades later -- were young in the 1960s. They worked hard and played hard. There was the dog track, car racing -- and there were women.

"He was very easy on the eyes," says Doretha Hair Truesdell, who married Hair in the '60s.

Then, on a fateful summer day in 1970, according to legend, Hair asked Doretha if she would object to him grabbing a beer with another Highwayman. At the local bar, a jealous patron who believed Hair was seeing his girlfriend shot Hair in the chest; he died at 29.

Alfred Hair's death nearly derailed The Highwaymen. Many stopped painting altogether. But some artists, like Mary Ann Carroll, have stuck with it.

Listen to the story - Jacki Lyden reports

Photos courtesy of Doretha Hair-Truesdell and Gary Monroe/University Press of Florida

The Legacy Of The Highwaymen (And A Highwaywoman)

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Courtesy of the State Archives of Florida

Mary Ann Carroll was out driving when she discovered The Highwaymen for the first time. As a young woman, she had picked citrus and cotton like Al Black, and was raising seven children on her own. Times were hard for her and, again, painting was the ticket out.

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An established artist, Harold Newton, showed her how to paint palms -- and she never stopped. For years she would pack her kids into the car to sell paintings after working all night.

Still living in the same house today, she recalls the time she spent in her garage: "Maybe it was dangerous sitting out there all night painting," she says. "But at the time, I never thought of it like that. I never thought of painting as a man or a woman's task. I just did it."

Today, Carroll is the founder of a small church – which literally congregates in a storage locker. She still appears at Florida art festivals to sell paintings. In 2001, she and The Highwaymen did get a significant boost with the publication of a book -- The Highwaymen: Florida's African-American Landscape Painters, by writer and photographer Gary Monroe.

But, although times have gotten better, they are far from easy. The recognition and renaissance of The Highwaymen has prompted a new kind of struggle. People who spent time with A.E. Backus say that his original vision of the Florida landscape has been exploited.

"Some of them are really horrible, ugly paintings," says Kathleen Fredericks, executive director of the A.E. Backus Gallery and Museum in Fort Pierce.

Backus was one of Fredericks' childhood mentors, and she defends his reputation fiercely, believing The Highwaymen have borrowed too liberally from Backus' work. "There's a reason why they were viewed as motel art," Fredericks says.

To this day there is a broad divide in Fort Pierce -- not just an art spat, but perhaps vestigial racial tension from the days of Jim Crow. The city recognizes The Highwaymen, but doesn't seem to know how to include them. A particular sore point is a monument put up to honor them: The commission went to a white artist from Miami.

"We had a struggle," says Carroll, "and we still have a struggle here in St. Lucie County, kid you not."

In recent years, the Backus museum organized a festival for The Highwaymen, but it devolved into acrimony and accusations. The Highwaymen don't feel appreciated; the museum claims that the painters have eclipsed Backus. And now The Highwaymen have unified their business strategy, forming a nonprofit group, The Original Florida Highwaymen, to protect their interests.

So where is the spirit of tolerance and inclusivity that everyone remembers from Backus' home studio?

Everyone has a different story to tell. Even among The Highwaymen, opinions and memories differ. They don't all tell it the same way, see it the same way, or paint their own history in the same hues. But Carroll says no matter what, she knows her life is better for having been an artist.

"My life," she says, "no matter how bad it might have been, I took joy out of it. I took the bad and reframed it. You know like you take a bad painting and put it in a beautiful frame? It makes a difference."

Photos courtesy of Mary Ann Carroll and Gary Monroe/University Press of Florida