Faced with segregation, black artists sold their work from their cars. They became known as the 'Highwaymen'
EDITOR'S NOTE:To celebrate Black History month, we will be spotlighting African Americans who had a major impact on Florida.
FORT PIERCE — Harold Newton did something that took guts.
An African American artist from Georgia, Newton in 1955 walked through the front door of a well-known white artist’s home in Fort Pierce, Florida, to ask A. E. Backus for advice.
“Backus had a reputation here in town for being inclusive and open to people no matter their gender, no matter their beliefs, no matter their race,” said J. Marshall Adams, Executive Director of the A.E. Backus Museum and Gallery in Fort Pierce. “Backus was very encouraging of his work, gave him critiques, gave him demonstrations, gave him art supplies to help encourage him.”
Newton soaked up everything Backus taught him.
Selling paintings along the highway
But Newton had one more hurdle to overcome if he wanted to sell his own landscape paintings.
体育在线365“He couldn’t set up his own gallery, his own space in those segregated times and attract white clientele to a black studio so he had to figure out a way to get his art to his clients, to his customers,” Adams said.
体育在线365Newton's solution: sell his paintings out of his car along U.S. 1. That method spread and was adopted by more than two dozen artists in the area, leading to more than 200,000 paintings and a vibrant African American art scene up and down the Treasure Coast. The artists were later given the name: Highwaymen.
The story of Alfred Hair
体育在线365One of the artists considered to be the scene's leader was Alfred Hair. When Hair was 14 years old, he, like Newton, fell into Backus' orbit.
体育在线365Hair went to the nearby segregated school in Fort Pierce — Lincoln Park Academy. It was Hair’s teacher who suggested Backus take him under his wing.
Backus taught Hair how to paint landscapes and how to make frames. Hair started to believe he could turn painting into a career, something unheard of for blacks of the time.
"The only jobs you could get was working in the fields, that was your job, in the orange groves," said Hair’s widow, Doretha Hair Truesdell. "Alfred didn’t see himself doing that. He said painting is what I’m going to do. This is my job. This is my employment."
体育在线365As Hair grew in the industry, he knew he would have to do things differently from his white mentor, who could set up in galleries and share his paintings with mass audiences.
体育在线365So Hair came up with his own business model.
A new business model
“What he could do is lean into his talents, and one of those talents was painting fast,” Adams said. “If he could learn how to paint faster and paint more volume he would have more to sell — he would sell them for a less expensive price point than an established artist — but at the end of the day make as much money.”
Soon, Hair took a page from Newton’s playbook. He began driving up and down the highway selling his paintings.
体育在线365It worked. During the early part of the 1960s Hair, and many other artists with a similar painting style, thrived.
体育在线365“On Oct. 16, 1965, we moved into our house that we had built from those paintings,” said Hair Truesdell. “When we moved into that house that’s when we really exploded. We could produce about 20 paintings a day. We hired salespeople. Some of the people that are Highwaymen now were our salespeople. They sold for us, so we were really making a lot of money for that time.”
体育在线365Hair and Newton’s practice of selling art out of their cars came to be used by many African American artists along the U.S. 1 corridor on Florida’s Treasure Coast.
体育在线365Many found success.
When everything changed
However, in 1970, the African American art scene lost its charismatic leader when Hair was gunned down in a bar. He was only 29.
体育在线365“Overnight, everything dies," said Hair's widow. "Nothing is left.”
Many of the African American landscape artists continued to paint, but waning interest after Hair's death coupled with new tastes and styles in the 1970s and 1980s saw much of the success fade away.
“We survived it all,” Hair Truesdell said. “We’re still living. Still standing and still we have the memory and we will always have the memory of Alfred, of his vision.”
In the mid-1990s Jim Fitch, a Florida art historian, discussed the African American painting movement of the 1960s in the St. Petersburg Times体育在线365, using a label to describe their art.
How the 'Highwaymen' came to be
体育在线365“That term is ‘The Highwaymen,’” Adams said. “The name came from the artery of U.S. 1 being the chief way to go up and down and sell your works of art. So it’s easy for us to, now that we have a term, to describe these artists.”
This created a new interest in their art, which is estimated to include 200,000 paintings.
One of the distinctive things that make the Highwaymen art unique is the frames and vibrant colors of the landscapes.
Especially early on, because they lacked the resources and supplies, Hair and others would paint on upson board. They framed paintings with crown molding and brushed them with gold or silver to give them a rustic look.
“I really think the board that we painted on, I just think it gave it vibrancy that you don’t get from canvas,” Hair Truesdell said. “Also, we shellacked our board, and then we put a sealant on the board, and then the paint just adhered to that sealant and I just think that it gave it life.”
The true number of Highwaymen artists has been debated, with some being considered second or third generation Highwaymen.
体育在线365However, in 2004, the number of identified Highwaymen was set at 26 when they were inducted into the Florida Artists Hall of Fame.
They include: Curtis Arnett, Hezekiah Baker, Al "Blood" Black, brothers Ellis Buckner and George Buckner, Robert Butler, Mary Ann Carroll, brothers Johnny Daniels and Willie Daniels, Rodney Demps, James Gibson, Alfred Hair, Isaac Knight, Robert Lewis, John Maynor, Roy McLendon, Alfonso "Pancho" Moran, brothers Sam Newton, Lemuel Newton and Harold Newton, Willie Reagan, Livingston "Castro" Roberts, Cornell "Pete" Smith, Charles Walker, Sylvester Wells and Charles "Chico" Wheeler.
体育在线365“Even though they might be painting similar subjects in a similar manner they each have their own individual viewpoints,” Adams said. “I think it’s important to honor these individual artists as well as the collective group. The collective story is really important, but it shouldn’t obscure the idea that these are individuals who are looking at subjects and painting with their own style. If you look closely you can see a wide range of different perspectives of how they approached a single subject.”
Highwaymen paintings can be seen at the A.E. Backus Gallery & Museum in Fort Pierce, as well as the Museum of Florida History in Tallahassee.
体育在线365Many can be purchased at various websites in their honor.
体育在线365There are also some pieces on display at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture.
体育在线365“It’s wonderful that these artists are being recognized today and they’re continuing to be recognized,” Adams said. “These works have a timeless beauty. They are of a certain time and there were certain social and political and cultural forces that shaped how they were made and how the people made them, were able to make them. They really speak beyond that.”
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