|1941 – 1970
Perhaps the most charismatic and ambitious of the Highwaymen, Alfred Hair had the charm and insight of a skillful entrepreneur. He was 5 feet 10 inches tall, handsome and easily made friends. Although he wasn’t directly instrumental in the artistic life of all the Highwaymen, he is generally thought of as the leader of the Highwaymen group.
Alfred had several notable family members. One of his uncles was James E. Hair (1915-1992), the grandson of slaves, (his grandfather may have been half white) and one of 21 siblings because each of his parents had been widowed with children. James Hair’s father (and Alfred’s grandfather) was a Baptist minister and a farmer from Blackville, South Carolina.
Educationally motivated by his parents, James graduated from Bethune Cookman College, then a two-year Florida school. He received a bachelor’s degree from Xavier University in New Orleans, and a master’s degree in social work from Fordham University. He was one of 13 black people who broke the color barrier by becoming a Naval Officer during World War II. Referred to as “the Golden Thirteen,” these young men tutored each other in order to receive test scores high enough to become officers. Their scores were so high—the highest ever recorded as a group—that skeptical Naval officers requested they be retested. They were commissioned as ensigns on March 17, 1944, and were later featured in a Life magazine article.
In a book titled The Golden Thirteen: Recollections of the First Black Naval Officers edited by Paul Stillwell with a forward by Colin L. Powell, James Hair described his experiences growing up in Fort Pierce. Of particular note was the lynching of his sister’s husband, a man he idolized. His name was Estes Wright and death was his punishment for speaking up about prejudice. About him James Hair wrote, “His strength was in his character; he believed very strongly in the dignity and integrity of each individual. He didn’t care what color you were.” Lessons like this seemed to have been passed on to Alfred.
One of Alfred’s aunts, also on his father’s side, was Carrie Cleo Hair. Active in civic organizations, she married John Ellis, a World War II veteran and a prominent resident of Fort Pierce who owned a thriving barbershop. Not only did people go to his shop for haircuts, it was also a key place where residents came to discuss civil rights. In 1963, the City of Fort Pierce appointed Ellis to a bi-racial committee charged with addressing the racial tension bought on by the Civil Rights Movement. A. E. “Bean” Backus, Alfred’s mentor, was also on the committee, as was Jackie Caynon, the first black City Commissioner. He served from 1969 to 1978. It was this committee that, in 1965, made a plan to integrate the public school system.
Like his ancestors, Alfred Hair was encouraged to do well in school. He was smart and had a competitive edge. He liked math and excelled at it. But he and his group of friends could easily become sidetracked, so his teachers encouraged his involvement in focused activities.
Alfred was good at sports and he liked to play pool and go fishing. He worked in the groves when he needed spending money, and he knew what hard labor felt like. After graduating from high school in 1961, he began his college education at Lincoln Park Junior College, but dropped out the first semester to become an artist. Before leaving school, however, he presented the college president, Leroy C. Floyd, with one of his paintings in much the same way as he had done a year before as a senior at Lincoln Park Academy. He was already so well known as an artist, that the Fort Pierce newspaper, The News Tribute, covered the presentation of the gift and linked him to Bean Backus. At that time, Alfred had wanted to paint so much that he turned down a football scholarship at Bethune-Cookman College (now University).
Zanobia Jefferson, Alfred’s art teacher at Lincoln Park Academy, recognized his talent early on. She taught him privately, and later introduced him to Bean Backus, the white landscape painter who would mentor him until his early death.
Alfred took formal lessons from Backus for two to three years, the only Highwayman who did. In fact, Hair became so closely aligned with Backus, that Bean once took him to Jamaica when he went there to paint. Like the residents of Fort Pierce, it is said that Jamaicans were taken with his magnetism and talent.
Alfred was a eager learner, and he took many important lessons from his teacher. He was envious of the way Backus lived as his own boss, and had created freedom with financial rewards. He knew that only a few people could afford a Backus painting, and that if he created landscapes more quickly, he could sell them inexpensively, thereby expanding his base of customers.
Alfred was also aware that, as a black man, the gallery scene would not be open to him. Consequently, he needed to envision another way of selling his paintings. Confident that he had the talent and energy to become an artist, Alfred devised a way to follow in Bean’s footsteps but deviate from them given the his place in the segregated South. Like this friend, Harold Newton, he decided to sell his paintings door-to-door.
Alfred’s friends took note of his painting process. Before long, he had a small audience gathered in his backyard on North 13th Street, where he lived with his mother, Annie Hair Jones. (At this time, his father had moved to Hallandale, a city north of Miami.) When he moved to the house on Dunbar Street, he began painting in the utility room off the carport. He cut Upson board for his canvases and made his own frames from inexpensive crown molding. When he needed more space than the utility room could offer, he built a large frame in the backyard where he could tack up more pieces of Upson board. His friends came to the house and painted their own paintings alongside Alfred in the backyard.
Alfred generously passed on the knowledge he had learned from Backus and added his own inventions for painting quickly.
After a long-time relationship, Alfred married Doretha Smith. She was an attractive young woman who had come to Fort Pierce from West Virginia with her siblings when she was 16, after her coal miner father killed her mother. They met on 25th Street in 1959. Doretha had graduated from high school and Alfred was in the 11th grade.
The handsome young man with broad shoulders and a mustache was impressive. A friend told Doretha that Alfred had built a house for his mother and that he was in the service, both tales about Alfred that weren’t true, but at the time, they made him even more attractive to Doretha. She said she dreamed about him that night, but she was wary. Her father was an abusive alcoholic and her view of marriage was not positive. As a result, she had children with Alfred before they married, as Doretha wanted to make sure he wouldn’t drink and turn violent like her father. Over time, Hair proved to be a loving father and good partner who was generous with her younger siblings. They eventually married in 1966. Doretha was supportive of Alfred’s dream of being an artist, although she is quick to acknowledge that it was always about the money and not making great art. Nonetheless, she recognized that the paintings were beautiful.
After a few months, Alfred added a studio to the Dunbar house. In this new space, he could tack up at least 20 boards onto a frame that extended from the ceiling. It was then that he decided to produce paintings in an assembly line fashion, enabling the landscapes to be made in record time. The utility room became the workshop for making frames. Family members and his wife, Doretha’s sister’s boyfriends were employed to construct the frames. Alfred’s brother-in-law, Carnell Smith, and Doretha painted the skies. Without waiting for the paint to dry, Alfred would start on the foreground details.
Like Backus, Alfred liked having people around him. He served beer and had crab boils. Painting at the Hair home became a festive experience.
Alfred Hair painted for the money, his goal was to become a millionaire by the time he was 35. In his mind, a painting wasn’t finished until it was sold. Unlike Bean, who sold paintings mostly on commission and charged several hundred dollars, Alfred painted twenty to thirty, maybe forty landscapes a day and sold them for $25 or $35 each, depending on size. It was clearly a better way to make a living than picking fruit.
In August 1962, Doretha went to Florida A&M University to take classes so she could become a teacher. Alfred gave her money and took her to the bus station. In February 1964, he moved to Tallahassee to be with their young son, Alfred Jr.
They rented a house in Frenchtown and Alfred tacked boards onto a tree in the backyard, continuing to make landscape paintings. Doretha painted the frames during her time off from school. But Tallahassee was not a good market for Alfred’s landscapes. They returned to Fort Pierce in June of 1964 for the summer, where they lived with Alfred’s mother. In September, they moved to Eatonville, the hometown of Zora Neale Hurston, who would later come to Fort Pierce for the last years of her life. Doretha did her student teaching at Hungerford High School, and the couple considered staying there after she graduated in December 1964. They liked the idea of living in a town run by black folks, and there was a good market in the area for selling paintings. However, they eventually returned to Fort Pierce and rented an apartment at the corner of 11th Street and Avenue E. The couple bought the Dunbar Street home in October of 1965. By this time, they had had two children, Alfred Jr. and Sherry. Doretha’s younger brother, Carnell, moved in and the two of them painted backgrounds. Alfred followed behind them with his brush and palette knife, finishing a landscape that would soon be loaded into the car for selling.
Their lives expanded on Dunbar Street with people repeatedly coming in and out of the house. It was a hard working life, but it was a good one. The family lived big, took vacations, and owned a boat. Alfred bought outfits to match his cars and always had a wad of money in his pocket. He was known for his success by both blacks and whites, and his friends admired him for sharing his knowledge and wealth. “He never met a stranger, ever,” Doretha claims. “He was kind and loving, and he was inclusive.”
As sales were going well, Alfred opened a studio on Avenue D across the street from what is now Granny’s Kitchen. The goal was to get the main activities away from the house. The studio was a storefront that was well located and an easy walk. It not only a place to paint, but also a pool hall, an artist’s retreat and regular hangout. It was here the assembly line way of working expanded and paintings were often constructed by a number of individuals. The studio only lasted about six months as Alfred realized that he was not getting as much accomplished as when he worked at home. He closed up shop and returned to work at his home on Dunbar Street. Production increased and four or more salesmen were hired to sell his work.
Alfred Hair’s untimely death came at 29 years old. On the night of August 9, 1970, he and his friend Livingston Roberts drove to Eddie’s Bar on Avenue D in Alfred’s brand new blue Lincoln Continental Mark III. After a game of pool, Julius Funderburk shot him twice in a dispute over his ex-girlfriend. Alfred had sensed danger and was trying to leave the bar. Badly wounded, he was rushed to the hospital.
A newspaper article written about his death reported that in less than 30 minutes about 600 people, black and white, had filled the parking lot and started a vigil. Some prayed, others cried. Someone in the crowd said, “This is a scene like if a president got shot. Everybody loved Alfred.” The much beloved painter, friend, and family member was pronounced dead just before midnight. The following day the newspaper quoted Bean Backus as saying, “I loved the guy and I am very emotionally disturbed over his death. He was not only a student of mine, but he did a lot of good work for improving race relations in St. Lucie County…. Alfred never did any harm to anybody. There’s nothing to be said about him that wouldn’t be nice.”
Eddie’s was the place where the artists often gathered to divide up their earnings and discuss the day’s sales. They shared stories and toasted their recent good fortune. After Alfred Hair’s death, Eddie’s Bar became known as a place of heart break.
Julius Funderburk turned himself in to the police. Three months later, he was sentenced to what was supposed to be life in prison, but he was released after serving only five years. Funderburk died in 2012.
Alfred Hair’s death left his wife, children and an untold number of friends and admirers. His passing shattered the worlds of numerous individuals who had come to depend on his presence and foresight. Doretha and Alfred were planning to move to Hollywood, Florida, where his clientele was particularly strong and they had already put money down on a house. So much changed after Hair died.
He was buried in Pine Grove Cemetery, a sandy spot where weeds grew more prevalent than grass. His tombstone was marble, but over time was vandalized and shattered, leaving only the word “Artist” visible. In 2003, after the Highwaymen received their name and once again become popular. Local artist Anita Prentice restored his grave, adorning it was a brightly colored mosaic mural rendition of one of his paintings.
Alfred Hair was not without faults. He gambled and drank, though not excessively in Doretha’s presence. But his magnetic personality, generous spirit, and winning ways won over everyone. Decades after his death, family and friends still speak of him with unconditional admiration and a deep sense of loss.
Many legendary stories are now shared about Alfred’s life. It is said that he lifted weights so that he could paint without resting. According to Doretha, Alfred had been an athlete and he did like to look fit, but he was in good shape without lifting weights during his painting years. It is also said that Alfred traveled to Jamaica many times with Backus, when in fact, he only went there once.
Another story often told that never happened is that Alfred wanted a fancy new Lincoln when he was in the early stages of his painting career. As the story goes, he went to the dealership and picked out the car of his dreams. After calculating how many paintings he would have to sell to buy it, he put his artists and salesmen to work. The story ends with him purchasing the car in a week’s time. Doretha claims that this is yet another legend about Alfred. Around 1963, he had a Chevrolet Super Sport that he let his brother use after purchasing a Cadillac in 1965. He drove several Cadillacs and didn’t own a Lincoln until 1969. Hair purchased many cars, eventually owning a small fleet of automobiles that were used by his salesmen.
What can be said for certain is that money was flowing freely and Alfred Hair and his family and friends were living the high life at a very young age. It is also true that Alfred Hair’s short life was filled with joy and triumph.
Alfred Hair painted without sketching. He was spontaneous and bold. Because his paintings were created in haste, they took on an expressionistic quality. Both Bean Backus and Zanobia Jefferson claimed he could have been a great painter had he taken more time with his work. But he was in it for the money, and quality was not his goal. Working from what he learned from Backus, he created shortcuts. Blades of grass, which became known as “fast grass,” could be rendered with quickly placed brushstrokes, and a bold and colorful sky could be placed on the surface with a wash of paint. All forms were created with rapid gestures using a variety of tools, including the ever present palette knife. Paintings were produced and sold in a highly structured manner. Not every landscape was unique, but each had individual nuances. As money began to stream in, Hair worked quicker.
As a smart businessman, he knew that he might flood the market with paintings signed by him, and instead of signing “A. Hair” he sometimes used the pseudonym “Freddy.” Because it was clear that he could make more money painting than selling, he hired salesmen and spent less time on the road and more time with his paints. Today, his paintings are highly praised and sought after.