R. A. Roy McLendon
Roy was born in Pelham, Georgia, to a sharecropping family. There were fourteen children in his family, twelve boys and two girls. Roy had a twin bother, Troy Aljin, who died in his late 70s. When Roy was young, the family moved to Delray Beach, Florida, where they raised peanuts and cotton. They later moved to Fort Pierce, but traveled around the country as migrant workers picking peas and whatever else was in season.
Roy knows a lot about picking peas since they played such a major part of his work life. He explains that there are several rounds of picking field peas. In the first round, peas are plentiful and it is easy to get 40 bushels (there are 25 pounds to a bushel) in a day or more. The second round is harder and the third round is called “scraps,” which are the last few peas of the season.
His experience working on the Belle Glade muck farms was especially difficult. Roy describes the black mud as awful, as it stings your skin and makes you feel like you’re on fire. Farm workers who worked the muck fields were identified with the derogatory term, “muck steppers.” Although migratory farm life was tough, it produced a rich culture that contributed to the character of black folk life in the South. Roy worked the fields so often as a child that he left school sometime around the 9th grade; it was hard to keep regular attendance during picking season. He left home at the age of 18 and worked a variety of jobs, including dish washing, construction, and cutting trees. He spent time in a canning factory where he processed vegetables and pumpkins. Many of his jobs required great strength. Although he was small, he had sturdy legs and strong arms and could handle the heavy physical demands of hard labor.
Roy eventually settled in Gifford, Florida, the African American section of Vero Beach. In the late 1950s, he met his neighbor, Harold Newton. McLendon explains, “I would go outside and see him with boards tacked up on the side of his house, painting.” Inspired, Roy began painting as well. Like Harold, he wanted to make quality paintings. He had always enjoyed drawing, and took pride in what he created. But he had to make a living, so he took other jobs like building walls along the ocean and laying terrazzo tile floors, most anything that paid the bills. He painted in the evenings and on days off.
In his early 20s, Roy married Annabelle, who was four years older. They met when they were picking peas in New Jersey, and Roy noticed that she was a fast worker, “especially for a woman.” He remembers that she had a sister who was even faster at picking peas. He was so impressed by her abilities that one day he challenged her to see who could pick more peas in a designated amount of time. He beat her that day, but it was a challenge. Roy and Annabelle are still married. Together they have eight children, two boys and six girls.
As Roy continued to paint, his work got better. Harold Newton noticed his progress and encouraged him to take a few of his landscapes to an antique shop to sell. Much to his delight, they sold for $35 a piece, a good bit of money in those days. He soon began selling his paintings on the road and experienced more success. Encouraged by his good fortune, he stopped working other jobs and focused full time on his paintings. It was the mid-1960s and his career as an artist was taking off. Roy used his own car for selling, and like many other Highwaymen, he sold in banks and any office spaces he could find.
But in the early years he still wasn’t selling as well as his good friend Alfred Hair. One day, Hair showed him some photos of cars and asked Roy which one he liked. Roy liked the Cadillac. Alfred suggested they paint together to earn enough money to purchase the car. So they painted around the clock at Alfred’s house, one full day and night. That was the first and only time Roy painted with Alfred, as his painting process was not to Roy’s liking. So the purchase of a Cadillac never happened.
Still, they spent a lot of time together. Alfred often came to Roy’s house for breakfast. They liked to go to the Rainbow Club in Eatonville, the historic black township and home of Zora Neale Hurston. When they left there, they’d go to the dog track and place bets.
Once he was earning a good living, Roy established a schedule. He liked to paint in the mornings and then go to Jai-Alai Hialeah in the afternoon for the dog races. At other times, he was selling. For Roy, Vero Beach, which is just over the railroad tracks from Gifford, was the most difficult place to make a sale. It was a Sundown town, meaning that black people were not allowed to be there after dark.
There were many other ways in which racism played a part in his early years. Roy remembers that if black people wanted to see a movie, they had to sit in the balcony. They couldn’t talk or laugh out loud, and when the film was over, Roy says “you had to run for your life because whites would throw sticks and stones at you. And they’d chase you.” He remembers that one time his brother, who was a bit mentally challenged, couldn’t keep quiet during a western. When a cowboy was poised to shoot someone in the back, he screamed, “turn around, turn around, he’s going to shoot you.” He was removed from the theater for that outburst. Roy also remembers that black men couldn’t wear cowboy hats as it was against the law. If he wanted a new pair of shoes, like all black people, he’d have to go to the back door of the shoe store to get them. If you asked for a size ten and all they had was a size nine, you had to take it. “Whatever the clerk wanted to give you, you had to take.”
Roy’s paintings provided him with a different experience. He was recognized as being talented and he could (at least briefly) be welcomed in a white neighborhood. He never had an art lesson, but like other members of his family, he could draw. He sometimes visited Bean Backus at his house with Alfred and Harold and admired his talent. But Backus didn’t teach Roy how to paint. He knew that Harold had learned a lot from Bean, so he watched Harold in order to pick up what he needed to know. Besides, in Roy’s eyes, Harold was just as good as Backus, and sometimes better.
Two of Roy’s children paint, Roy, Jr. and Kaye. Roy, Jr. taught himself to paint by watching his father, and he has a young son who is also learning to paint. Kaye is just beginning to create landscapes. Roy, Jr. now paints with his father each day. They line up their boards and canvases and paint side-by-side.
Together, Roy, Sr. and Roy, Jr. own a gallery in Vero Beach on Old Dixie Highway. Roy says it’s harder to market work these days because so many people paint like the Highwaymen. With so many paintings available, prices go down. But he does fairly well selling work at art festivals, fairs, and exhibitions. He just wishes sales could be a bit better.
Roy McLendon engages in other activities as well. He still enjoys betting on the dog races in Hialeah and visits two to three times a week. He pays attention to politics and praises President Obama’s efforts in the face of so much opposition. For a man in his 80s, he’s still got a lot of living to do.
It is Roy’s subject matter that sets him apart from the other Highwaymen, as it is more wide ranging. He paints traditional Highwaymen landscapes such as ocean scenes with waves crashing onto the beach and palm trees swaying in the breeze. But he also paints still life, houses, figures, and animals, suggesting a narrative. Laundry dries on a clothesline, women work in the yard, and a mother and child walk down a dirt road to go fishing. Roy’s environments are often places people inhabit. Roy sees himself and his community as part of nature, and not separated from it.
Author’s Note: Thanks to Betty Ford-Smith who interviewed Roy McLendon, Sr. and Roy McLendon, Jr. on May 15, 2014, in Vero Beach. This essay is largely based on her interview notes.