Florida Highwaymen Painters, Celebrating Black History

Celebrating Black History

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 the 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's most recent accolade is "the Smithsonian!" In 2016, with eighteen paintings, 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, In Fort Pierce, Florida a group of unknown untrained African American young men, documented authentic Florida through painting the landscapes serene natural beauty. The vision, encouragement, and training of black art instructor Zanobia Jefferson inspired A. E. "Beanie" Backus a prominent white landscape painter, to mentor her student Alfred Hair. In the 1950s, during Jim Crow Laws, the south was racially charged and segregated when Backus, began to teach Alfred Hair. Hair, an African-American high school art student who was eager to make a career in painting, and did not work as a field laborer as his colleagues did. Alfred Hair was the only artist, Backus taught to paint, their unlikely friendship and partnership began what would become known as the Florida Highwaymen painters.

Harold Newton was a young teenager when he established his life as a painter. By the early 1950s, Newton had a list of clients by the time he'd met A.E. Backus. Backus influenced Newton to paint Florida landscapes instead of the religious scenes, which Newton painted on black velvet. After Hair discovered his ability to make money and earn a living through art, Hair 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. Two icons are the founding fathers of the Highwaymen group, Harold Newton and Alfred Hair.

"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, river edges, and along the roadsides.

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 over decades.

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. Under the radar, they achieved success and fame! From the 1950s - 1970s, 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, tomatoes, and pineapples were a life designated for blacks. 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 written 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, Newton, set the precedent for selling his paintings door-to-door 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 Alfred Hair and after Harold Newton. Livingston Roberts and James Gibson, followed by Sam Newton; Mary Ann Carroll, the only Original female. Willie Daniels, followed by his brother Johnny Daniels, George, and Ellis Buckner, all painted before Alfred Hair died, in 1970. Hezekiah Baker stopped painting after the death of Hair. The top salesman for the group, Al Black began to paint after the death of Alfred Hair. The legends started with two painters, and twenty-four joined in overtime. Blood and non-blood, the majority were close friends and a few families. Only three sets were brothers, Harold, Sam and Lemuel Newton, Willie, and Johnny Daniels, and George and Ellis Buckner. All others, nineteen were non-blood friends, some close-knit, others not as close.

"The story started with two dreamers, then twenty-six pioneered," the group is now known as the Florida Highwaymen. The Florida Highwaymen are sometimes called "The Last Great Art Movement of the 20th Century." Once labeled as painters, decades later earned the respect of artists. Worth repeating, in 2004 twenty-six artists, all men, and one woman, were officially recognized, and inducted into Florida's Artist Hall of Fame and a host of museums, nationally and internationally. The most recent affirmation in 2016, 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 the artist's narrated accounts. In 2001, author Gary Monroe, located, researched, identified, and wrote the narrative of twenty-six authentic Florida landscape painters. Today, many have written books and continue to write, as unknown discoveries are revealed. Extensive collections are owned by Highwaymen historians, art enthusiasts, promotors, and contributors. In 1994, a Florida art collector, Jim Fitch wrote an article and was credited for appointing the group's name, "The Highwaymen." A name was earned because of the way they peddled their artwork up and down the highways, and the art world took notice. Respectfully, several Highwaymen have ventured to write their own untold history of untold stories through books, websites, and social media platforms. But there is still much to discover!

The Florida Highwaymen Handed Down History, the Original's are not at the celebration alone. In 1973 "The Historic 2nd Generation Art Movement was established with family Roy McLendon Jr. and friend Jimmy Stovall. The 2nd Generation helped to create some 200,000 nostalgic paintings. The 2nd Generation is the most powerful extension of history started by "the Originals." History lives on, as the Historic 2nd Generation continues to create distinctive 1950s authentic Florida! "Highwaymen Art" is nostalgic, and unlike any other! And yes, the magic and the memories are still worth it! As their story transcends time, those who are the chosen close friends "by the Originals," are indeed worthy of being recorded for history to remember. Blood, and selected hand-picked non-bloods, Jimmy and Johnny Stovall, Kelvin Hair, female AJ Brown, and Richard Edwards can exist under one name as did the Originals, as "the 2nd Generation." Support the African American Florida Highwaymen Historic 2nd Generation Artists, as they journey the movement through Florida's highways and by-ways.

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