A small museum in historic downtown Fort Pierce is home to a remarkable collection that tells the story of a group of artists who achieved the American dream against all odds. The paintings—peaceful landscapes streaked with the vivid colors of a Florida sunset or spiked with the flaming red of a poinciana tree—transport viewers to a time before mass development and are highly sought-after by collectors. But the Black artists who eventually became known as the “Highwaymen” painted those idyllic scenes and gained success against a challenging backdrop of racism in the segregated South of the 1950s and ’60s.
The A.E. Backus Museum and Gallery in Fort Pierce is devoted to featuring the paintings of its namesake, Albert Ernest “Beanie” Backus, a noted local landscape painter who died in 1990. For decades, Backus mentored artists in and around Fort Pierce, several of whom were students of Zanobia Jefferson, an art teacher at Lincoln Park Academy in the 1950s, where Zora Neale Hurston (a friend of Backus) also briefly taught. Backus, who was white, welcomed everyone, regardless of race, to his studio—and budding Black artist Harold Newton came knocking. Soon after, another high school student, Alfred Hair, was introduced to Backus by Jefferson.
Under Backus’ guidance, those two young men formed the nucleus of what was to become a loose collective of Black artists who might have otherwise ended up working in manual labor jobs in the Jim Crow South. Instead, the prolific painters took control of their future and began modestly peddling their art up and down U.S. Highway 1 from their cars. The artists were first identified and described as a group in 1994, when art historian Jim Fitch conferred the name that signified their mode of traveling salesmanship. By 2004, 26 artists (including one woman) were inducted into the Florida Artists Hall of Fame as the Highwaymen. And since 2016, paintings by several of the original Highwaymen have been included in the collection of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture.
The Full Story
Want to learn everything there is to know about the Highwaymen? There’s no better place to turn than the published works of Gary Monroe. The noted photographer and author is the foremost authority on the subject and has penned numerous books about the artists and movement, including The Highwaymen: Florida’s African-American Landscape Painters (2001); The Highwaymen Murals: Al Black’s Concrete Dreams (2009); Harold Newton: The Original Highwayman (2018); and his most recent, Alfred Hair: Heart of the Highwaymen (2020). The beautiful books are packed with history and brilliant photographs of the artists’ works. Published by University Press of Florida, you can find all of Monroe’s Highwaymen books at upf.com.
Many of the artists, who lived in the same neighborhoods and inspired one another, achieved individual success in the 1960s and earned more than they could have imagined. By the 1980s, they were somewhat forgotten. But after they became known as the Highwaymen, a renaissance occurred that put the paintings back in demand in a big way, according to J. Marshall Adams, executive director of the A.E. Backus Museum. “There are different schools of thought about the name itself, but having a name—any kind of name—coalesced awareness and rekindled excitement about their art,” he says. “It also has allowed their story to come into its own.”
That story was all about creating art that would appeal to the white community. With the objective to sell as much as possible, most of the Highwaymen painted for one purpose: to make a living. As such, they painted quickly. “Most of these artists weren’t creating art for the sake of art,” says Adams. “They were doing it to sell, though there wasn’t a business plan so to speak. It was very organic. If driving up the highway in your car worked, then that’s what you did.”
Florida landscapes were what the buyers wanted, and the talented artists became proficient at creating paintings that were at turns dreamy or dramatic, with a certain mysticism. “All of these scenes have a fresh quality that spoke to buyers,” Adams says. “The artists were aware of that and responded to it.”
The most celebrated Highwaymen salesman was Al Black, said to have had the ability to “sell a mosquito a jacket in the summertime.” In the 1960s, he would load up the trunk of his 1962 Ford Galaxie with paintings from the local artists and hit the road. Up and down the Atlantic coast, every week he visited the offices of doctors, lawyers, real estate agents...anyone he thought might be interested in spending approximately $25 to own a Florida landscape. Black was a salesman extraordinaire, paid a 30-percent commission by other artists to sell their work. He describes himself back then as polite and clean, shirt tucked into his pants. But while most businesses were interested in at least taking a look at the art, he says, others roughly turned him away. “They would say, ‘Get away from here, we don’t want no Black people in here,’” Black recalls. Undaunted, he would return the next day, ever solicitous, and apologize for offending them. Invariably, they would relent and buy a painting. “I knew how to talk to them,” he says. “I know how to act, and I know how to deal with people.”
As part of his job as a traveling salesman, Black touched up the canvases that were damaged during transport. He learned how to mix colors and, while in Fort Pierce, he would observe the artists at work. He eventually taught himself to paint, and today Black is considered one of the original Highwaymen. A passionate artist, he always includes three birds together in each painting, signifying the Holy Trinity, he says.
After succumbing to a drug addiction, Black spent 12 years in prison beginning in 1994. But his time in incarceration wasn’t wasted: After reports of the newly named Highwaymen began circulating, he was asked to paint murals on the walls of the waiting rooms in several Florida correctional institutions.
These days, Black, now 74, doesn’t need to pack up his car and hit the road to sell his art. Collectors come to him and spend considerably more than $25. Most days, he can be found in the backyard of his Fort Pierce home, pacing in front of several canvases hanging from a simple rope under a tarp to provide shade from the sun. He works quickly, spreading colors across each canvas, building upon them until the shapes of the landscape emerge. Painting, he says, keeps his mind together. “Sometimes I feel down and out, and I stumble out to the backyard and paint.” Although it gives him a sense of peace, the objective has never wavered: to paint quickly and to sell quickly. “I have people coming in all the time now, and I sell everything I paint,” he says.
Roger Lightle, a collector in Vero Beach, owns more than 500 pieces of Highwaymen art and has turned part of his home into a gallery. He sees prices in the tens of thousands for the paintings and recently paid $42,000 for a work by Harold Newton, Fishing the Creek. For decades, Lightle has devoted himself to telling the story of the Highwaymen, mounting exhibits around the state (in cities like Tampa and Orlando) and curating the rotating collection at the Backus Museum, lending several pieces from his personal collection in the process. “We try to educate people,” says Lightle. “There are 26 artists, each with an individual story, but we try to focus on the whole. People love the Highwaymen story.”
Since an expansion in 2016, the Backus Museum has designated a permanent gallery to Highwaymen art, and once a year, it offers an expanded collection. This year, Lightle says, a total of 70 Highwaymen paintings will be on view until March 7. “I see these paintings as a type of historical record,” he says. “They document a period of time.
People love the story of trying to achieve something and actually doing it. It’s an American success story.”
Where to View Highwaymen Art
• Permanent exhibit at the A.E. Backus Museum & Gallery, 500 N. Indian River Drive, Fort Pierce; 772.465.0630
• Right of Way: The Highwaymen, an expanded exhibit with 70 paintings, on exhibit through March 7 at the A.E. Backus Museum & Gallery
• Private gallery of Highwaymen art specialist Roger Lightle