The original Florida Highwaymen were a loosely affiliated group of 26 African American painters who began working as artists in the mid-1950s. The group featured 25 men and one woman, Mary Ann Carroll. The Florida Highwaymen Art Movement was inspired by A.E. Backus’ success as a landscape painter in Fort Pierce, Florida, one town south of Vero Beach, 60 miles north of Palm Beach, on the state’s east coast. The Florida Highwaymen trace their roots to Fort Pierce as well.
Backus only formally trained one of the group’s members: Alfred Hair. The others were self-taught.
The Florida Highwaymen art movement takes its name from how the group sold their work. Shut out of galleries, art fairs and museums by racial segregation and Jim Crow laws, the Highwaymen took their art direct to consumer. Driving across Florida, emanating from U.S. Highway 1 which stretches along Florida’s east coast running through Fort Pierce, a precursor to Interstate 95, Highwaymen artists packed their paintings up into the trunks of their cars and back seats and hit the road.
They sold paintings along the roadside like fruit stands. They went door-to-door selling to an influx of new homeowners in the state. They sold to hotels looking for inexpensive regional room decorations. They sold to restaurants, insurance offices, doctor’s offices, dentist offices. This was a boom period in Florida’s growth. People needed decorations and Highwaymen artworks were reasonably priced – $20 for a large, original painting to place over the couch or behind the receptionist’s desk. The Florida Highwaymen were as prolific at sales as they were painting.
Selling cheap, the Highwaymen had to produce in volume. Florida Highwaymen artists would sometimes produce 20 paintings in a day – loose, lively, vibrant Florida landscapes glorifying the state’s Atlantic breezy coastline, its swampy interior, poinciana trees. The heyday of the original Florida Highwaymen art movement petered out by 1980, but between then and the start, it is believed some 200,000 artworks were produced. No detailed accounting exists. The Highwaymen were producing art quickly for a quick turnaround. They were supporting themselves this way, painting to put food on the table as a better option than the back-breaking labor offered for pennies a day in the state’s citrus groves.
The origins and originality of the Florida Highwaymen art movement can be seen in an exhibition of their work on view through February 26, 2023, at the A.E. Backus Museum in Fort Pierce, less than a half mile from U.S. 1 and in the heart of Highwaymen Country.
“Dashboard Dreams: The Florida Highwaymen and the American Road” puts over 50 original Florida Highwaymen paintings on view, most coming from private collections and never before seen publicly, along with vintage automobile ads from the 60s and 70s targeted at African American buyers. The exhibition highlights the connection between the Highwaymen and how they made their living with the car.
The exhibition leans heavily on the collection of Roger Lightle, whose Highwaymen Art Specialists in Vero Beach and online is the leading resource for buying, selling and learning more about the Florida Highwaymen.
Where are the Florida Highwaymen from?
The 26 artists associated with the “original” Florida Highwaymen Art movement mostly lived along the state’s east coast in an area called the Treasure Coast for the number of shipwrecks which occurred in the waters there. Fort Pierce was the epicenter. That’s where many of the group’s members called home, including one of its most prominent, Alfred Hair.
With a membership as large as theirs, of course, Highwaymen painters lived throughout a number of the small towns across the region, but Fort Pierce is universally accepted as their “home.” Most, but not all, are native Floridians.
Fort Pierce remains a small town, unlike many which have grown up around the area. It’s located on the Atlantic Ocean and features an historic downtown. The A.E. Backus Museum and the legacy of the Highwaymen remain its calling card.
Interestingly enough, famed ethnographer and African American author Zora Neale Hurston lived out her final years in Fort Pierce, dying mostly unrecognized and impoverished. Her legacy and final home are preserved here as well.