Ms. Mary Ann Carroll stopped in for a visit, while Johnny Daniels and I sat painting side by side. "Hey Johnny, how y'all doing," "she said." "Hey Ms. Mary Ann," Johnny responded; then, he introduced her to me. Our eyes met, as we respectfully greeted each other. After a bit of small talk, she asked Johnny for a colleague's phone number and then asked me if I would write it down for her. "Sure," I responded. After more small talk she wished us both a good day and walked out of the gallery. She appeared humbled, and a nice person. "She doesn't usually come in here," Johnny said, " I think she came to see you, AJ." Although I did not realize it at the time, Ms. Mary Ann Carroll was one of the paintings I grew up with during summer vacations with uncle Alfred. Paintings I had not seen for some time. What I quickly grew to realize and understand, is that Ms. Mary Ann Carroll, deserved the utmost respect, for her lifetime of service and commitment, during the harsh era of Jim Crow days; she was the only female Highwaymen artist, to walk through segregation with her with fellow Highwaymen.
During the 1950s a group of black students painted Florida as an escape from poverty. It was a vision that started during the segregation era of Jim Crow Laws. A prominent white landscape artist AE "Bean" Backus influenced Harold Newton and taught a young student by the name of Alfred Hair. Newton influenced many friends and taught Mary Ann Carroll. Hair influenced family and friends which included James Gibson. Gibson was the first Original Highwaymen to teach me, AJ Brown, to paint before introducing me to Johnny Daniels for additional painting lessons. From vision to legacy, teaching, influencing friends, and family, blood and non-blood are the core root of what has sustained a vision that is now a brand and the history that is now a legend. Twenty-six African Americans, all men, and one female, (Mary Ann Carroll), endured racial tensions of the segregated times in the deep south.
In search of an escape, a way out of a life of poverty, painting helped her keep food on the table for her kids. But no one could visualize that an upscale venture intended for whites only, would become sustainable by an unlikely all African American group, whose endurance would grow into one of the greatest art movements in America's history of the 1950s.
November 4, 2007, James Gibson's invitation to Fort Pierce Highwaymen Artists Hall of Fame, the Culture Affairs Council Re-dedication Ceremony was exciting. Gibson attended with his life-partner Estelle Dunn. I had known many of the Highwaymen, but others I met for the first time. Collecting autographs in my Highwaymen book, was indeed a treat. From across the room, I noticed Ms. Mary Ann Carroll, and made my way over to greet her to ask if she would sign my book? "Yes, she said." This was a practice also made with the 2nd Generation, aware the book would one day be a collector's item.
The page written about her is one of the most significant because of the way she signed it. The version of her story misrepresented her character; she felt the need to clarify her truth in my book. Women of color are often stereotyped by assumptions and perceptions, and it is rare that we are asked to tell our story. Much has changed for black women since her 1950s heyday, but then again much has not. Part of a unique group, she was a unique female painting a unique Florida for survival during a unique time.
Like the Originals, the 1950s tradition of friends, continued among the all African American group of friends, family, blood, and non-blood. Children of the Highwaymen and neighbors children in the community would become future Highwaymen, born during the '50s and 60s they were the next generation. Raised with Highwaymen art since the 1960s, in the '70s, uncle Alfred hired me, a high school student as a stucco helper during summer vacations. He acquired a collection of Ms. Mary Ann's work when she hired him to stucco her home at 2901 Dunbar street. Her stamped signature adorns the back of the historic Upson boards. Intertwined, both generations witnessed, and personally experienced the racially charged incident's of the 1960s; police brutality was at the forefront. As a young girl, 1968 was a remember-able year, I watched as segregation played out on our family's black-and-white TV. As an adult, I watch those same atrocities in 2018. I can relate to her struggles.
Decades passed, and in May 2009 for the first time in history, the Originals and the 2nd Generation united! They established the first "Official Historic 501'(c)3." "Florida Highwaymen Artists and History Center" was the name given with the persuasion of James Gibson. Mary Ann Carroll was the first elected president, R.L. Lewis was the secretary. As the assisted secretary, authorized to perform all official duties instead of Mr. Lewis, I became the first appointed official Highwaymen secretary and member of the by-laws committee. Both generations were included as board members, and several were appointed official positions. A monumental era in time, the Highwaymen were at their best!
During my services and contributions to the group, it was then Ms. Mary Ann and I became acquainted. She brought her granddaughter to my house for play-time with my granddaughter Salsa, the two little girls got along well. On her return, to pick up her granddaughter, Ms. Mary Ann stayed to visit with me. There was no mistaking the two of us, she was the generation before me, whom I held in the utmost respect, and felt a sense of honor to work beside her.
After the by-laws meetings, several of us shared many friendly meals, and performed shows as both generations unified. She asked if I would assist as the secretary of her church. But, as the Highwaymen secretary, Johnny died at the beginning of the unification. Authorized to construct his grave-site monument and working with Stephanie Werner on the Highwaymen obelisk at her request, and the request of Jody Bonet, manager of Cultural Affairs, made time scarce.
Ms. Mary Ann Carroll was the first female of the first generation and the first to hold the honor of becoming the first president of the first historic 501(c)3 Highwaymen organization. She asked, why I named her "Ms. First Lady." It was my small way of showing her appreciation, honor and respect.
Privy to crucial information, members shared their deep-rooted history. The characteristics and differences of each member created the dynamics of an ever-changing group. Enormous responsibilities transformed my skills into quite the historian, I was reaffirmed into a history that was now my own. In accordance with the by-laws, with the end of Ms. First Lady's term of two years, came the second 501(c)3. By the end of 2017, no official 501(c)3's exist, and both generations continue the movement as a group and host independent shows to earn a living.
Mary Ann Carroll was older than Johnny Daniels, yet both were colleagues as well as friends. When some stopped, both always painted and made significant life-long contributions, leaving no doubt they are core members of the history of the group. As a 40 year veteran of Highwaymen art, and 54 years in age, Johnny died May 26, 2009. Both generations paid their respects. Ms. Mary Ann sang one of Johnny's favorite songs, "Walk Around Heaven All Day." Multi-talented, and blessed by God, she entertained the huge church of gatherers. Her gold standard voice could take one far and wide.
One day, while maintaining Johnny's gravesite, Ms. Mary Ann happened to be at Pine Grove Cemetery the same time as I was. She said to me, "My daughter is buried here." "I like what you did with Johnny's site and someday I want you to do her grave site"; I was astounded. She asked that we continue our discussion later. It is the good feelings and the fond memories that are always remembered the most.
Owned by the highest office of the land, the United States of America, Presidents have added several pieces of Florida's nostalgic art history to their private White House collections. James Gibson, Mary Ann Carroll, Johnny Daniels, and AJ Brown just to name a few, are a part of this history. In 2012, Fort Pierce City Hall, and Florida Humanities Council invested in the history of the Highwaymen and created the Highwaymen Trail and Fort Pierce Tours through-out the city, and the Highwaymen website is visited from around the world. All four of the above mentioned Highwaymen artists and many more are highlighted on these monuments as part of "Florida's Highwaymen History."
Thank you America, for supporting both generations and future Highwaymen to come.