Florida Highwaymen Painters

The Florida Highwaymen Artists began to paint in Fort Pierce, Florida during the 1950s.

The group of 26, all men and one woman has come a long way, but only because they are now aged and gray. In their journey, they have accomplished a list of accolades, but only over years and decades. From the 1950s, times of turmoil, until 2004, that's the time it has taken twenty-six African Americans to receive recognition, an induction into the Museum of Florida History, Artists Hall of Fame, in Tallahassee Florida. The Highwaymen most recent accolade is "the Smithsonian!" In November 2017, the group was reaffirmed by the "National Museum of African American History & Culture (NMAAHC) in Washington D. C." From the side of the road to legends of the road, the history makers have earned state, national and international achievements. "But it hasn't always been that way," in reality, it has been a "struggle" that has taken decades, over a lifetime, for the group who became known as the Florida Highwaymen Original Artists.

Over Six Decades Ago, a group of unknown untrained African American young men, documented Florida through painting the landscapes serene natural beauty. It all began with the vision of two, encouragement and training of black art instructor Zanobia Jefferson and A.E. "Beanie" Backus a prominent white landscape painter, in Fort Pierce, Florida. In the 1950s, during the Jim Crow Era, the south was racially charged and segregated when Backus, began to teach Alfred Hair, a high school African-American art student who was eager to make a career in painting. Their unlikely friendship and partnership began what would become known as the Florida Highwaymen painters.

Harold Newton was a young established painter and according to Roy McLendon Sr. Newton painted about 1948 and by the 50s had a list of clients by the time he met Backus. Backus influenced him to paint Florida landscapes instead of the religious scenes he painted on black velvet. Newton and Hair are considered the founding forefathers of the group. After Hair discovered his ability to make money and earn a living through art, he and Newton encouraged friends and family to join in. Hair invented the makeshift assembly-line easel and discovered his fast painting techniques generated quick money, and was convinced he could become a millionaire.

"The Heart Of The Highwaymen," they were in search of an escape from a system of poverty, a design tailored for blacks. With no formal art schooling, close friends and family joined them and took up painting Florida landscapes. Most of the painters would typically be seen throughout Southeast Florida, one would find them creating their Highwaymen paintings in parks, along roadsides and river edges.

Then tragedy struck, Alfred Hair was killed in 1970, at the young age of 29, in a juke joint called Eddie's Place in Fort Pierce. A famous hangout spot where the painters would meet to unwind for drinks and listen to the latest soul music hits, after a long day of selling their paintings on the road. Some of the men took a short hiatus to mourn the loss of their leader. Others who had families to support continued to paint and sell their work on the road. More friends joined in and the young entrepreneurs continued strong for the next 20 years and beyond.

Legends Of The Road, the name Highwaymen was earned because of the way they sold their paintings. Door to door, business to business, attorneys, and doctors alike, alongside US Highway One and A1A. From the trunks of their cars, lined side by side, they displayed their hand-painted creations, and for $25 to $35 dollars, sold to locals and tourists. They used crown molding as frames, Upson board as canvas, tree trunks as easels, garages, and backyards as studios, makeshift materials was the only game they knew. Signatures scratched in with nails, colors of undeveloped Florida, vivid scenes in oils were still wet. Who sold paintings still wet? "The Highwaymen did!"

The Long Hard Road, shunned for the color of their skin, neither museums nor galleries would showcase the work of black artists during the Jim Crow Laws. The young men had no choice but to take to the road. Unbelievably, under the radar, they achieved success and fame! It is believed the Highwaymen created in excess of 200,000 paintings, a far better living than the hustle of working in packing houses or back-breaking fields, picking oranges and tomatoes. In the early 1980s, as sales dropped and interest in their art seemed to diminish many of the Highwaymen took a hiatus and pursued other careers. Then in the early 1990s, because of quite a bit of publicity, the Highwaymen realized a resurgence in collectors and public interest. With this renewed interest came a sharp rise in demand and value.

Entrepreneurs, today the Florida Highwaymen paintings remain wildly popular and again many of the Original 26 now earn a living through painting unique highly collectible, primitive Florida landscapes, valued at thousands of dollars. Harold Newton of Gifford, Florida was 59 when he died of a stroke in 1994. Most would agree, he set the precedent for painting and door to door selling that the rest would follow.

The Florida Highwaymen Artists are "The History Makers," the earliest core Originals are eldest, Roy McLendon Sr., who painted before Hair and after Newton. Livingston Roberts and James Gibson, followed by Sam Newton, Mary Ann Carroll, the only Original female. Willie Daniels, followed by Johnny Daniels, George and Ellis Buckner, all painted before Hair died. Hezekiah Baker stopped painting after the death of Hair. The top salesman for the group, Al Black began to paint after Hair died. They started with two, twenty-four joined in over time, blood and non-blood, friends and family. Only three sets were blood-related. In all seven brothers, Harold, Sam and Lemuel Newton, George and Ellis Buckner, Willie and Johnny Daniels. All others, nineteen were non-blood friends, some close-knit, others not as close.

From two dreamers, 26 pioneered, known as the Florida Highwaymen Artists, the group is sometimes called the last Great Art Movement of the 20th Century. Once labeled as painters, decades later earned the respect as artists. Worth repeating, in 2004 twenty-six, all men and one woman, were officially recognized, inducted into Florida's Artist Hall of Fame and a host of museums, nationally and internationally. The most recent affirmation in November 2017, is the "Smithsonian." The National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) in Washington, D.C. A significant important African American Cultural achievement!

The Florida Highwaymen Artists story is for certain one of intrigue, a true “American Dream" based on real lives, some never lived to see their success. The legends used painting as a way out of a segregated life. An American story and Highwaymen history are told through their narrated accounts, written in 2001, by author Gary Monroe located, researched and identified twenty-six landscape painters. Many have written books and continue to write as unknown discoveries are revealed. Extensive collections are owned by Highwaymen historians, art enthusiasts, and contributors. In the mid-1990s, art expert Jim Fitch was credited for giving the name Highwaymen, a name earned because of the way they peddled their art up and down the highways, and the art world took notice of their work. Several Highwaymen have ventured to write their own books of untold stories of their own history. But there is still much to tell!

Because of the vision of two, the Original's are not at the celebration alone. "The Historic 2nd Generation Movement established in 1973 and is the most powerful extension of what the Originals have started." History lives on, as they continue to create distinctive 1950s nostalgic Florida! "Highwaymen Art" is a brand unlike any other! And yes, the magic and the memories are still worth it! As the story transcends through those who are the chosen, blood and a few non-blood African American Florida Highwaymen Historic 2nd Generation Artists continues today!