The “Highwaymen” Name

By 1990, most of the artists had moved on to other ventures, although a few, such as James Gibson and Livingston Roberts, were still painting. Three artists had died: Alfred Hair (1970); Ellis Buckner (1991); Harold Newton (1994). Many of the paintings from the early years were stashed in garages and attics, although some remained on the walls of restaurants and old Florida hotels. But the artists were about to get a second wind.

Jim Fitch (b. 1935), a white man with deep roots in Florida, decided to figure out if the state had a painting tradition. His interest was not purely artistic; he wanted to make money for some investors while developing a collection of Florida paintings. He was also intent on establishing an awareness of the state’s artistic heritage.

Jim Fitch and his wife, Anne, owned the Kissimmee Valley Gallery, east of Sebring, and a craft shop in Okeechobee. Anne taught residents and snowbirds oil painting, and they were used to traveling the state to find contemporary artists. They had had the business for many years, which gave them keen insight into what was happening in the art world, both locally and nationally. Fitch was (and is) an astute businessman but his knowhow did not come from formal schooling. (Jim says that all his degrees are honorary, and he received his GED by buying a yeoman a fifth of whiskey.) He was adventurous and observant. He knew that Florida had no sense of a regional art scene and he set out to change that perception. By 1992, the artists who would become known as the Highwaymen were in in his radar.

Jim went to his son, Mike, who was in finance, and suggested that the time was right to begin purchasing works by Florida artists. Mike convinced some men in the cattle business, who were flush with cash at the time, to invest. In 1993 they formed a limited partnership they called The Florida Masters Collection, Inc. Jim, who had recently retired, had time, a bank account, and the trust of his investors, and he began his search for Florida art.

Fitch

Jim Fitch

One of his first purchases was a work by Christopher Still titled On Sacred Ground, a wonderful Floridian scene with Native Americans in it. It went on display in Governor Lawton Chiles office in Tallahassee and created a buzz about art related to Florida. In appreciation for lending the artwork, Jim and Anne were invited to dine at the Capitol. But this wasn’t the only time they had been honored guests of a Florida governor. The first time was when Jim curated a traveling show about the Suwannee River. That time Governor Bob Graham hosted the meal, and he used the exhibition to strengthen his image as a man who identified with Florida. Jim not only knew art, but he knew how to market it.

Fitch knew there were black artists centered in and around Fort Pierce who had created landscapes and he began to purchase them cheaply. But he needed to know more about the artists, so he went looking for them in Fort Pierce. He started his inquiry with a white lady in a used bookstore. She helped him set up an appointment with an artist who stood him up three times. Then he figured he needed more help.

For years Fitch had been friends with Robert Butler, a black landscape painter who was raised in Okeechobee and was now living in Lakeland. Jim called Robert and asked for his assistance. They met in a McDonald’s in Lake Wales. Robert was dressed in a three-piece suit; Jim was in his self-proclaimed look as a redneck. Together they rode to Fort Pierce in Fitch’s Bronco with a whip antennae, looking for the black landscape artists who had peaked Jim’s interest. Butler asked the questions, beginning in a beauty parlor. After a series of dead ends, they were eventually led to a place under a banyan tree where some black men were washing cars. The car washers eyed the black and white duo with suspicion. After a long discussion, they finally landed a meeting with an artist who would soon come to be known as a Highwayman, although Fitch’s memory on who the meeting was with is now gone.

Jim, Anne, and Mike continued to investigate after that first meeting. One day they were in Stuart asking about the artists and Sam Newton appeared. He wanted to know if Jim was the one “spreading bum dope.” After some discussion, he wanted to know if Fitch would purchase one of his paintings. Sam took them to his Cadillac, and in his trunk were three paintings. They bought all three; one was by Harold Newton.

Jim began making a list of who was in the group, and his collection of paintings grew. The story was coming together, and it seemed to Jim as if Bean Backus was a key player.

In order to market the group, Jim knew that a catchy name was needed. He chose the “Highwaymen” because he was fascinated by the way the artists had sold their work on the highway. He had interviewed Al Black several times and it was Al who inspired Jim to think of the term. According to Fitch, Black was a bit of a “scallywag” and a “conman.” The term seemed to fit.

In the Winter 1993-1994 issue of Art and Artists of Florida, a publication of the Florida Masters Collection, Inc., Fitch wrote an essay titled, “In Search of a Tradition.” He recognized various non-Floridians who had painted Florida landscapes: Thomas Moran (1837-1926), Martin Johnson Heade (1819-1904), George Inness (1825-1894), and Winslow Homer (1836-1910).  The American industrialist and founder of the Florida East Coast Railway, Henry Flagler (1830-1913), supported many of these artists, hoping their work would entice northerners to come stay in his hotels. But all these famed artists were all passing through, and their art couldn’t be considered regional art.

Jim noted that until 1950, most Floridians saw art as excess baggage; money had to go to things that were practical and necessary. But by mid-century, they had some discretionary funds and they began thinking about their own sense of place. Floridians were beginning a search for their identity. Fitch wrote:

Thus was born a movement, a school, a Black, self-taught tradition that I recognize as the beginning of Florida’s residential, regional art tradition. Within that movement, that could be called The Indian River School, was a sub-group that I’ve labeled the “Highwaymen.” It was this sub-group that was responsible for feeding the demand for regional art all across Central Florida.

Other articles followed in Antiques & Art Around Florida and many other regional publications.

A media frenzy grew from there. Journalists from all over the state and country began contacting Jim for information about the African American artists, who beyond all odds, created brightly colored Florida landscapes and sold them on the highways during the Jim Crow era. Collectors came from everywhere, looking for old paintings, accumulating them as an investment and for the love of the work and the story. The University Press of Florida asked Fitch to write a book on the group, but Jim figured it wasn’t worth his time, so the offer then went to Gary Monroe, an art professor from Daytona Beach Community College (now Daytona State College). Monroe’s book, the first of several written on the Highwaymen, came out in 2001. A number of documentary films followed.

In a relatively short period of time, Jim had established a strong collection of Florida art and the reputation of his artists, especially the Highwaymen, grew. In January 1998, Fitch set up a meeting with Dr. Catherine Cornelius, who was then president of South Florida Community College (now South Florida State College) to talk about the collection. It was appraised at $500,000 and the investors were willing to give it to the college for tax credit. Jim’s efforts produced the Florida Masters Collection that formed the basis for the Museum of Florida Art and Culture (MOFAC) at the College, and Fitch landed a job as the director and curator of the museum. He worked there from 1998 to 2003 and continued to champion the Highwaymen.

Many people, including the artists, disliked the name. They said it evoked ideas of highway robbery. Nonetheless, the Highwaymen name stuck. Like other names that initially seemed objectionable or uncomfortable, such as “gay” for homosexuals or “black” for Negros, over time, the term was redefined. Today, when someone speaks of the Highwaymen, the name evokes the black landscape painters centered in Fort Pierce, many of whom sold their work on the highways of the segregated South.