"The History Maker," James David Gibson taught AJ Brown to paint. His status as an Original Highwaymen was the official beginning of my Highwaymen member-ship. As the only non-blood female, 2nd Generation Highwaymen of the group, I AJ Brown became a part of the "Gibson's legacy." Uncle Alfred was the first to introduce and raised me with Highwaymen Art during the 1960s, my early childhood years. Several paintings hung on the walls in each room of his small house. Imaginations began during summer vacations with walks through back-wood scenes, swimming in canals and night fishing along the river banks of Florida’s paradise.
For many years, Mr. Gibson lived on Matanzas Avenue, neighbors of aunt Ruth and uncle Alfred. One breezy fall day in September, auntie walked with me to Mr. Gibson's house on the country dirt road.A well-respected stucco business owner, uncle Alfred new the young men, he collected and supported them early in their careers. Uncle paid $25 dollars before they received fame, fortune or even their name "Highwaymen." Decades later Jim Fitch would call the men, the Highwaymen, for the way they peddled their art along Florida's highways."
The African American men were eager to paint their way out of a life of hunger and poverty. They lived in the deep-south, Fort Pierce, Florida with a systematic design of the Jim Crow Laws. Miles of orange groves and tomato fields made life difficult for blacks, with not much to look forward too.Mr. Gibson’s small two-bedroom, one bath home, sat on a long canal that led to the famous St Lucie River; his two large dogs protected the property. Before his fame, fortune or success, he introduced me to his life partner of decades Estelle Dunn, through a collage of pictures of her, himself and well-respected members of former President Bush family, who owned a collection of his art.
In 2005, taken back in time with lessons in history, stories of his life as a Highwaymen came to life, James Gibson, a legend of the road was eager to share. The next day I went out and purchased more than $100.00 worth of painting materials, a sparked interest because he would teach me to paint!
Supplies in hand, I returned the next day ready to paint. Mr. Gibson mainly enjoyed sharing his talent with children. I received painting lessons instead of my niece and nephew, my initial reason for wanting to meet with him. His tiny shed as his studio, he lined his boards along the makeshift assembly style easel. Held together with nails and wood, Gibson used cuts of 2x4’s at the height he stood to paint. The moon shimmered off his back-yard canal, brush strokes of Spanish moss hung from tall bushes, moonlight reflected off palm trees, and he asked if I could see the blue in the night? Two-night scenes were our first subjects. James taught me his signature Red Royal Poinciana trees. The production line invention was the bright idea of his friend, Alfred Hair. Hair’s makeshift creation became the tradition among the group of painters, and even myself.
After nearly two years, James explained his clientele picked up substantially and suggested I continue lessons with Original Highwaymen Johnny Daniels. He explained Daniels taught over a four year period, Jimmy and Johnny Stovall, when Kelvin Hair joined Daniels group, simultaneously to my lessons with James.
A commissioned piece for then-Governor Charlie Crist was one of the last paintings I watched, as James completed. Honored to work with two entrepreneurs, James and Johnny, simultaneously for a short while, Johnny’s free spirit and mentoring nature was a game changer to the next level. Side by side I learned by watching Johnny paint. We would later establish a close kinship, as God uncle and niece, and Johnny would ask me to be his Highwaymen business partner.
In May 2009, the "Original Highwaymen and 2nd Generation" unified, to establish the first historic 501(c)3. Mary Ann Carroll was elected the first president, and I, AJ Brown was officially appointed the first Highwaymen Secretary & By-Laws Committee member. Invited by both James Gibson and Johnny Daniels, we attended Highwaymen Art shows throughout the state of Florida. Vero Beach Cultural Center, and Port St. Lucie Recreation Center was a mere few. The Annual Highwaymen Art shows were directed by Kathleen Fredrick at the AE Backus Museum in Fort Pierce, Florida. In 2007, the Cultural Affairs Highwaymen Re-dedication were among the list. The Original Highwaymen established a tradition of performing shows throughout Florida with the 2nd Generation Highwaymen. Traveling the back-country roads of Florida, I have found imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Many mimic Highwaymen Art, traditions, and movement. Our history and body of work inspires and touch folks across America. James Gibson and Johnny Daniels are legendary. In the 1950s and 60s they used oils to document the state of Florida, and helped make Highwaymen Art what it is today!
The Good Friend
Part of James Gibson's history was a story of the early years and his close friend, Alonzo Pratt. In the mid-1960s, Al Black became the salesman for the group but he was not the first. In the beginning, the early original salesmen started in the 1950s, Alonzo Pratt, Minnesota Fats, Zoom, and a few others. They sold to residents, and businesses along the side of the road throughout Florida, long before the young men acquired fame, fortune or name recognition. The entrepreneur's had no clue that what they started would lead to success! Working miles of fields picking tomatoes, oranges, and grapefruits well into the night made the next-day early rise exhausting.
Oil painting was a rare career for an African American man, during the Jim Crow Era. Against all odds, they earned their way out of poverty and despair. Alonzo made extra money selling art for the men. A well-dressed attractive young man in his 20s had a winning personality. Alonzo stood approximately 6'3", and had medium brown chocolate skin, with smooth tones, admiring features, and a million-dollar smile. His jet black wavy hair with a slight curl made him a strikingly handsome man! Women were helplessly drawn in by his charisma. It was easy to understand why James liked hanging out with Alonzo. James a young man in his 20's, he was also an attractive figure. Females of all colors were attracted to the men who made lots of money, which made sex a fair trade for James and Alonzo.
One day Alonzo saw his good friend, Cowboy, beating his girlfriend. Respectful of the ladies, Alonzo approached Cowboy, told him it wasn't cool to beat up on a female and asked him to stop. Cowboy's anger overtook him, and he told Alonzo not to stick his nose in his business! Alonzo responded, "Hey man, I don't care what she's done; you don't use a lady as a punching bag!" "I'm not gonna say it again. Stay out of grown folks' business," Cowboy responded! Cowboy turned away from Alonzo and continued to whale on his lady. Being the gentlemen that Alonzo was, he couldn't stand by and watch his friend use his lady as a punching bag. Alonzo turned Cowboy on his heels and hit him in his mouth. In return, Cowboy landed a punch on Alonzo's jaw. The two men broke out into an all-out brawl.
Alonzo picked Cowboy up completely off his feet and threw him into a near-by store-front glass window. The shattered glass flew everywhere. The fight was over. Cowboy's girlfriend took off running in one direction and Alonzo took off running in the other. Eventually, Cowboy picked himself up off the floor and staggered outside stepping over the glass, and down the sidewalk toward home. The owner of the store wanted his window repaired and searched for the person responsible. Fearing the consequences of jail time, no one wanted to stick around to see what would happen when the police arrived. Cowboy held a grudge and didn't see Alonzo for a while.
Alonzo and Cowboy went to Upstate NY on separate field buses with contractors to pick apples. It was the season for picking fruits and vegetables, a popular system of earning a living for blacks during the 1960s. All over America, for miles and miles of land, far and wide, blacks migrated from city to city, and state to state. Sometimes, country to country as Bahamians and Jamaicans came to America. They came on contacts to join American black field hands picking crops on properties owned by white Americans. The back-breaking hard labor earned them little income. The depressing life barely kept food on their tables.
One day after picking crops, Alonzo wanted to relax and unwind. He thought he'd meet up with the guys at a local hang-out for a few rounds of gambling. "Hey man, what's up; can anyone join in this game?" "Yeah, man, pull up a chair, take a seat at the round table;" Alonzo was pretty good at gambling. Excited to win money, in those days a game of cards was high on the list of ways a black man earned extra income. Alonzo pulled up a chair facing the guys. As a few hours rolled by and after winning a few rounds, Cowboy walked through the door and noticed his friend Alonzo, who he had not seen since the brawl, sitting at the round table. Without saying a word, Cowboy turned around and headed outside. He returned after a few minutes and walked back through the front door. Cowboy called out to his friend Alonzo. Alonzo looked back and saw, Cowboy standing in the doorway. Cowboy held a 45 caliber Smith and Weston in one hand and aimed at him. Alonzo stood up and without warning, pulled the trigger, and unloaded rounds into his friend's body! Alonzo fell to his knees, and then to the floor. Alonzo's last words to his friend were "Don't kill me, man." Alonzo died near the roundtable!
An unforgettable scene to those who bared witness, Alonzo was dead! Cowboy turned and ran. The friend took revenge; his rage turned the relaxing afternoon into a horrific tragic evening that would affect friends, family and James Gibson for years to come. The Highwaymen had lost their salesman. No one could have guessed, not even Alonzo, that his friend would turn on him with thoughts of murder. But for Cowboy, seeing his friend again brought back fresh memories of the day he lost his girl and his pride, which drove him into a blind rage. Cowboy couldn't stomach his tarnished pride. Alonzo protected his best friend's girl and for that he was dead. Cowboy killed him! Alonzo laid lifeless on the floor. The family buried Alonzo in Fort Pierce, Florida.
Cowboy did time for the murder of Alonzo Pratt. James ended his memory of his friend that day. "The story played over and over in my mind as I drove home for the weekend. I would return on Monday for regular painting sessions and another history lesson of the early years." Some of the many tales told of the Highwaymen have slightly varied, depending on whom I talk to.As small-town Fort Pierce would have it, Alonzo was the father of my auntie's first-born son in 1961. A young lady at the time, her son was Alonzo's second son and my first cousin. Memories returned fresh, of back in the day when my cousin and I were raised together as kids in Miami. He'd just received the heartbreaking new; my spirit felt his feelings of sadness. I now understood the devastation my cousin must have suffered. He'd grown up without his biological father, a definite loss of true love. He remembered his father who spent time with him, the love they both shared and cherished memories of the times they went fishing. Auntie later married; her husband became the father to both of her siblings. They spent the remainder of their lives living in Fort Pierce, Florida. Uncle died of a brain tumor, and after 30 years of marriage, auntie was alone; however, she adjusted to difficult days ahead.