The Highwaymen grew up during a time of ridged segregation, which greatly affected how they lived their lives and who they were to become. In the mid-1990s when they gained wide-spread fame for their paintings, the context of their work and position as African Americans had changed. Civil rights had made inroads but discriminatory practices had not disappeared. The context of race in the Highwaymen’s story is important to understand.
Jim Crow Laws
Jim Crow laws took place from 1876 to 1965, affecting the lives of four generations of African Americans. These laws authorized segregation in public spaces. In 1890, a “separate but equal” status was instituted for blacks. In Fort Pierce, as was true all over the South, segregation held strong, but it was in no way equal.
There were white and colored water fountains, bathrooms, and waiting rooms. Blacks in Fort Pierce had to sit in the balcony at the Sunrise movie theatre and use beaches specifically designated for them. In many places blacks could only be on white beaches if they carried an ID confirming they worked there. “Race mixing” was prohibited in Florida until the late 1950s. While people today often think of Florida as being somewhat apart from the deep South, in the mid-twentieth century race relations in the Sunshine State were no different from Georgia or Tennessee. And from 1890 to 1930, the lynching rate in Florida was the highest in the South.
Although the 1954 Supreme Court decision, Brown vs. the Board of Education, mandated integration in the schools, it didn’t affect the lives of the Highwaymen who all had segregated educations with unequal financial support. Although Jim Crow ended, by law, with the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act, Fort Pierce, like most other southern cities and towns, remains largely segregated within neighborhoods and schools. What did change was the accessibility blacks had to public spaces.
For the Highwaymen, selling in the segregated South meant paying careful attention to the rules. In the late 1960s and 1970s, movement into white spaces was legal, but it could be contentious, even dangerous. When selling door-to-door to businesses, if a salesperson received a negative response to an initial invitation to look at paintings, they quickly moved on. A hard sell was not an option. If sales were made far from home, a black hotel had to be found for the overnight stay. The Highwaymen generally knew it would be across the railroad tracks.
The time was ripe for selling landscape paintings as Florida was booming. In 1950 the population of St. Lucie County was 20,180, and by the year 2000, it had gown to 192,695. While postwar development destroyed much of the beauty of the landscape around Fort Pierce, it provided the Highwaymen with potential customers and businesses with walls where paintings could be hung. As the ubiquitous pristine landscape of Bean Backus’ early painting days began to disappear, replaced with strip malls, hotels, and a few grand houses with manicured lawns, the Highwaymen were in the right place at the right time. People were becoming nostalgic for images of Florida’s untamed wilderness.
According to Zanobia Jefferson, it was, in part, segregation that spirited the Highwaymen to become artists. They were outsiders to the art world and painting gave them not only a job but also a name, one they could sign on a piece of Upson board. Zora Neale Hurston, who spent the 1950s in Fort Pierce—the last ten years of her life—knew that the verbal and visual arts could liberate African Americans. For her, riots were not the answer. Nonetheless, as was true in so many other cities and towns during the Civil Rights Movement, in 1970, riots broke out in Fort Pierce. While most residents don’t want to talk about the violence, they acknowledge that it was a dark time in the city’s history.
Today, as galleries, art fairs, and festivals are open to everyone regardless of race or ethnicity, these venues are primarily where the Highwaymen sell their works. Selling door-to-door is no longer necessary.
Lincoln Park, Fort Pierce’s “Colored Town”
Lincoln Park, once referred to as Fort Pierce’s “Blacktown” or “Colored Town,” is north of the city’s white neighborhoods. Like other cities and towns in the South (and North) it was, and remains, largely segregated. During the 1950s, it had dirt roads and a growing business district centered around Avenue D. There were juke joints (bars often owned by whites), pool halls, laundromats, cafés, stores, and restaurants. It was a place where most anything could be purchased.
In the 1950s, ninety percent of Florida’s households owned a radio, and listening to boxing matches was a popular pastime. All around Avenue D, as in African American towns around the country, the Highwaymen and their families grew up enthusiastically listening to Joe Louis, Joe Frazier, and Muhammad Ali win fights. They were energized by African American music, gospel, blues, jazz, funk, and soul. James Brown, like other black musicians, had spirit, energy, and style; they were musicians who could get down and get up. As popular culture gave blacks hope and pride in their abilities, the Bible promised it. By mid-century, African Americans were making their mark, creating confidence that filtered into the hearts and minds of young people.
The spaces to which Fort Pierce’s African Americans had easy access were limited. But the Indian River was close by where blacks could fish or commune with nature. And Bean Backus’ studio was a short walk away, welcoming young blacks into an integrated space where creativity, music, and conversation included them.
The New Jim Crow
Fort Pierce’s black neighborhood is not as vibrant as it once was. Like so many other African American communities, it was ravaged by what Michelle Alexander calls “the New Jim Crow,” the result of The War on Drugs. Although blacks and whites use illegal drugs at approximately the same rates in the U.S., blacks are 3.7 times more likely than whites to be arrested for possession. In Florida it’s even worse; here blacks are 4.2 times more likely to be arrested. Taking black fathers and sons out of neighborhoods destabilizes families, resulting in lifelong consequences for employment, education, voting rights, jury duty, professional licenses, and access to public housing and loans. A 2014 New York Times editorial claimed “the weight of our criminal justice experiment continues to fall overwhelmingly on communities of color, and particularly on young black men.” The op-ed piece continues: “The American experiment in mass incarceration has been a moral, legal, social, and economic disaster.” Black communities all over the country, including Lincoln Park, have been destroyed by drug arrests and convictions. While Al Black is the only Highwayman directly affected by imprisonment for drug related causes, the communities from which these painters came and live drastically changed from vibrant black communities to shattered neighborhoods.
A small renaissance is now taking place in Lincoln Park. Avenue D now sports freshly painted buildings with Caribbean colors. You can get a home cooked meal at Granny’s Kitchen, where Highwaymen still hang out. There is a barbeque joint with pool tables in the adjacent room, and a number of places where one can worship. The Highwaymen’s legacy marks the renaissance.