Carnell “Pete” Smith
|January 4, 1950 – December 15, 2015
Dr. Carnell Ambrose Smith is one of the youngest of the ‘Original’ Highwaymen in the Florida Artists Hall of Fame. He was also Highwayman artist Alfred Hair’s brother-in-law.
A man with broad shoulders and a hearty laugh, Carnell was both a painter and a minister. With a family history of violence and loss, Carnell preached about redemption and God’s good grace. Born in Beckley, West Virginia to a troubled coal mining family, Carnell and six of his siblings often witnessed his alcoholic father, Allison Smith, beating his mother. Fannie, Carnell’s deeply religious mother, did what she could to keep the family together. She took her children to church and raised them in the Pentecostal faith. According to Carnell, she loved his father in spite of his vicious behavior. And for a good Christian woman at that time, divorce was out of the question.
Allison was a hard worker during the week, but he drank moonshine on the weekends. When he drank alcohol, he spiraled out of control. The children were taught to leave the house when the rage started. They often ran to a neighbor’s house where they were kept safe. Sometimes they slept in cars or on the church bus until morning when their father had slept off his drinking spree. Allison Smith was hospitalized several times for his violence. He may have had a lobotomy. When he returned home, there was always hope that he had gotten better. But once liquor was back in his system, his temper would once again come to a boil.
On the morning of June 13, 1959, Allison Smith was particularly agitated. The children had left the night before when the fighting started. But they returned in the morning, hungry for breakfast, and hoping that their father had slept off his drunken rage. But Allison was angrier than ever. Fannie tried to calm him as she attempted to carry out the day’s activities. She and Carnell’s 16-year old sister Doretha were getting ready to scrub the front porch. As they filled a tub with water, he murdered Fannie Berthale Smith by beating her to death with a crowbar that was used to keep the kitchen door secure. She was 38; Carnell was nine. He and several of his siblings witnessed the murder. In terror, they fled the scene and informed the family who so often had protected them. The neighbor held Allison Smith at gunpoint until the police arrived. Carnell’s father was sentenced to 15 years to life.
Hard work came early to Carnell. He was picking cotton by the age of six or seven on summer trips to visit relatives in South Carolina. He learned to stay clear of his father and to love his mother. Racism was not something he knew anything about in Beckley. Except for the violence in the Smith home, every family in town seemed about the same. They were all eking out a living from the mines.
Soon after his mother died, Carnell and his six siblings went to Fort Pierce to live with his older sister, Christine, who worked at the segregated bus station as a cook. She was 21 years old at the time and had three children of her own to raise. An aunt and uncle who also lived in Fort Pierce helped out as they could. Carnell studied at Lincoln Park Academy where his art teacher, Zanobia Jefferson, introduced him to painting. He went to live with his sister Doretha and her husband Alfred Hair after they moved into a house on Dunbar Street. Anger defined him. He swore to himself that if his father ever got out of prison, he’d kill him. He would avenge his mother’s death and the damage his father did to his family.
Like other teens in Fort Pierce, Carnell picked grapefruit and oranges on the weekends and during the summers. Looking for some connection and acceptance, he got involved with a bad crowd. “I needed somebody,” Carnell explained. Arrested and sent to jail a few times as a juvenile, he said when he got locked up he would cry to go home. The older prisoners would mimic him, making fun of his weakness.
These short imprisonments didn’t stop Carnell from doing foolish things. One time, he and his friends took off their clothes so they could swim across the river to “Whitetown.” There they planned to steal a motorbike. When the police arrived, they ran like crazy, naked from their swim. Carnell was singled out to catch, but he was fast and got away.
Carnell continued to get into trouble. The last time he got caught and went to court, the judge sent his friends to prison. The judge then explained to Carnell that he believed he came from a good home, and because of that, he would be sent home. He was then warned that if he ever saw his face in court again, he too, would be sent to prison. Carnell never forgot that. In retrospect, he believed God was looking after him.
Although Alfred Hair was only nine years older than Carnell, he became a father figure to him. He often went with Hair to visit Bean Backus in his studio. He watched Alfred learn from his mentor. He’d sit on the sofa and drink a beer when he could get away with it or was old enough to do it legally.
Alfred made a difference in Carnell’s life. He was happy living with Alfred and Doretha. He felt part of something good. Soon after Hair began painting for money, Carnell became involved in the business. Alfred was his teacher. At the age of fourteen, he started making frames. He was either paid for the frames he made or the money was used to help pay for his room and board. Alfred was a patient teacher. When something was done incorrectly, he simply gave more instruction.
When Alfred’s paintings began selling so well that he couldn’t produce them fast enough alone, Carnell and Doretha were enlisted to paint the backgrounds. At first Alfred mixed the colors and sketched out the landscapes. Once they got good at blending hues and creating the correct mood, they were taught to mix colors. Alfred would then finish the paintings. Before long, Carnell and Doretha were working more independently. Livingston Roberts, Sam Newton, and Lemuel Newton were often at the house on Dunbar Street.
Although he was younger than many of the painters who gathered to paint, Carnell was accepted as one of the group. Like the others, he went on the road to sell the paintings, traveling to Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Pompano, Bradenton, and Sarasota. He stayed in the black motels, which were easy to find because they were placed by the railroad tracks in the black communities. He sold works by Hair, Livingston Roberts, and sometimes the Newton’s, as well as his own.
In 1970, when Alfred Hair was shot and killed at Eddie’s Bar, Carnell lost a strong stabilizing presence in his life. Like so many others, he grieved deeply. Doretha and Carnell tried to pick up the pieces of their lives together. They painted the foregrounds of the landscapes that Alfred would have painted had he lived. They started painting their own pictures.
In 1974 Carnell’s father was released from prison after serving only 15 years. When he received this news, he was ready to act on the promise he made to himself so long ago. Allison Smith was out of prison and Carnell could now expel his anger by killing him. His rage grew and he prepared for the act he had thought about for so long. After some time, he found a gun and was ready to drive to Beckley when he heard that his father was dead. Allison Smith had frozen to death in his car after a drinking spree. Carnell was furious. He felt cheated and powerless. In his eyes, he had failed. His sisters went to the funeral believing that their father was mentally ill and not responsible for his actions. They wanted to put the murder to rest. Unforgiving, Carnell stayed home.
Carnell and his family moved to West Palm Beach where he began to reflect on his life. One day, some friends invited him to church. He had prayed before as his mother had taught him, but he had never felt the power of God the way he did on that day. He knew he needed something that could show him his path in life. He asked God to come into his heart. He explained, “It was energizing; it was like love that I have never felt before. The hurt was coming out and the love was coming in.” He felt as if he was being held, and he wept. Carnell’s life took a turn for the better.
In 1974 he married his first wife, Daisy. Together they had four boys and one girl. Carnell studied at Nova University for a year, and then learned to install and fix electrical wiring at North Tech Institute. However, he soon understood that his life’s work was as a minister. He went back to school and received an associate’s degree in Biblical Studies and a bachelor’s degree in Ministry from Canon Bible College and Seminary University in Orlando. He was later awarded an honorary doctorate in Life Skills and eventually earned a doctoral degree in Theology from the United International Chaplain School. His ministry extends to hospitals and prisons. He described his religion as being Pentecostal or Charismatic, but said he was basically nondenominational, as he ministered to anyone in need. Carnell Smith was living in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania with his second wife, LaFayettra, ministering to his congregation, when he passed away December 15, 2015, after a long, hard and courageous battle with cancer.
He is survived by his wife LaFayettra Smith along with sons, Carnell Smith Jr., (LaToya Foster) of Fort Washington, MD, Joseph Smith of Philadelphia, PA, Demetrius Smith of Sharon Hill, PA, Christopher Smith of Philadelphia, PA, and; daughter Christie Smith of Jackson, MS; sons Chad Smith of Darby, PA, Eugene Smith of Philadelphia, PA, William Gore of Jackson, MS; daughters, Clarinda Squerres of Atlanta, GA, and Chuntae Smith of Yeadon, PA; along with bountiful grandchildren; sisters, Christine (George) Reeves, Sarah (Thurston) Spann, Doretha Hair (John) Truesdell, Dr. Fannie Lee Lewis, JoAnn Crutchfield, Peggy McIntosh and Zenobia Green along with a host of nieces and nephews and other devoted family members and friends.
Smith’s often shared his inspirational story from the pulpit. It signaled a life of transformation. He continued to paint the landscapes of his youth, scenes of tranquility and calm. Carnell Smith found peace. In telling his story, he often proclaimed with delight, “Look how God works.”
Carnell favored painting Poinciana and palm trees. His paintings generally represent clear skies and sunny days. They reflect Florida’s landscape as pleasant and uncomplicated. His colors are bold and striking. Smith claimed that God gave him his talent; he recognized it when he got faith. He prayed when he paint, understanding that God creates beauty in the world. As he formed his landscapes, he would ask the Great Creator for direction on how to follow His lead. He asked Him to help him paint the world, the clouds and the trees, knowing that God “is the greatest artist of all time.”