The Dunbar House
If one place in Fort Pierce could be identified as the epicenter of the Highwaymen’s early experience, it would be the home of Alfred and Doretha Hair, generally referred to as “the Dunbar House.” This was where Alfred Hair painted and perfected his business approach. An easy walk from Avenue D, the Dunbar House was a gathering place for would-be artists and salesmen in the 1960s. In and around the house, paintings were created, frames were made and enthusiastic salesmen loaded their products into car trunks to sell. A competitive spirit was born at the Dunbar House, along with a strong belief in a prosperous future.
Fortuitously, the American Dream for dozens of artists, their families, and friends became a reality during the mid to late 1960s. According to Doretha’s brother, Highwaymen Carnell Smith, they worked hard for long hours Monday through Friday and painted on a cheap roofing material called Upson board. Frames were made from door trim. They hated to waste paint. Paint cost money, and money was what it was all about.
It wasn’t unusual for the energetic Hair to create 20 or more paintings in a single day, and good times were evident as well. Nicknamed “Banana Boat,” Hair frequently barbecued various kinds of meat on a grill at the Dunbar House and shared it with anyone who came around. Beer was readily available, as was a good story and friendly bantering. He often told people he wanted to make enough money to always have a Cadillac and to be a millionaire. He drove a Caddy, but died before making a million.
Because Hair was so prolific, his mentor, A.E. “Bean” Backus suggested he adopt a ghost name. According to Alfred’s wife, Doretha Hair Truesdell, “He said Alfred was selling too many paintings with his name on them and was cheapening the work.” Taking Backus’ advice, Hair created approximately 75 works under his ghost name – Freddy – between 1966 and 1967. According to Doretha, the ‘Freddy’ paintings were a collaboration of the husband and wife team, with Doretha painting some of the basic elements like the skies and backgrounds and Hair adding the details like trees, shadows, birds and people.
While we cannot really know what it was like for the Highwaymen in their early days, we can imagine that it must have been exciting, disappointing, hopeful and discouraging all at the same time. For young African Americans living in Jim Crow-era Florida, there were very few options. They overcame the impasse by teaching themselves to paint then defied all barriers to get their works out to the public.
The Highwaymen were and are to this day a true phenomenon, not only artistically but also as an untold chapter of black history. Their stories, along with their paintings, inspire us to rise above our surroundings and circumstances and do things our own way, apart from the status quo.
The Dunbar House has been remodeled since the early days, but still remains a place of great historical value.