Zanobia Bracy Jefferson
Zanobia Jefferson was an art teacher at Lincoln Park Academy who taught some of the students who would later come to be known as the Highwaymen. While she saw the most promise in Alfred Hair, she also educated other future Highwaymen, including James Gibson, Isaac Knight, Carnell Smith, Johnny Daniels, Willie Daniels and one of the Buckner boys (she’s not sure which one, since her students were identified by last name only).
Her family stressed education and the arts. Both her parents had two years of college education, a huge accomplishment for the times. Zanobia’s father knew Booker T. Washington, and like him, he believed that education was important to the rise of the African American race. He was a clerk in the post office in Chicago where Zanobia was raised and her mother was a homemaker who later took up radiology to help pay for her and her two sibling’s college.
From sixth grade through high school, Zanobia had a scholarship to study at the Art Institute of Chicago. She remembers receiving a star and an honorable mention for her work. All three Jefferson children went to Fisk University, a prominent African American college in Nashville, Tennessee.
While Zanobia studied art and science at Fisk from 1944-1948, no major was offered in art at the time. Nonetheless, she had some excellent art teachers, which included Aaron Douglas (1899-1979), a well regarded Harlem Renaissance painter. Before most other art teachers of any color knew about African American artists and the rich art, music, and literature being created in Harlem at the time, Zanobia was tuned in. She knew that African Americans were breaking the color barrier in the arts.
She met her husband, Robert, in 1948 and they were married in 1950. Shortly afterwards, they came to Fort Pierce to teach at Lincoln Park Academy. Zanobia began teaching science classes and Robert was a physical education teacher who also coached several sports, including football. He became Dean of Boys, then Assistant Principal, and later the 9th grade Principal at Lincoln Park Academy. Together they had four daughters, all of whom experienced art growing up.
When Zanobia started teaching at Lincoln Park Academy, there was no art department. It was due to her efforts that an art program was developed. She recognized Alfred Hair’s potential as an artist and helped mentor him both inside and outside school. According to Zanobia, teachers liked Alfred, as he was personable and wanted to succeed. Because they didn’t have paints in the school at the time, she taught him and her other students to work with pastels. Alfred showed artistic potential, and at his mother’s request, Zanobia worked with Alfred on Saturdays. However, at that time, Alfred wasn’t serious about becoming an artist. He had other things to do on Saturdays.
Sometime later, Bean Backus went to the Lincoln Park Academy counselor offering his services as an art teacher. The counselor contacted Zanobia, and she suggested that Alfred become Bean’s student. Alfred Hair was the only Highwayman who took formal lessons from the well regarded white landscape artist.
Zanobia Jefferson was both a sculptor and a painter. She enjoyed her relationship with Bean Backus as he welcomed her (and anyone else) into his studio. She once hung a painting she created of her daughter in one of his art shows. If asked, Backus was always open to critiquing her work. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, she took her students on field trips to the Backus Gallery, sometimes 100 at a time. At one time, Zanobia was on the Backus Gallery Board. She stopped painting around the time her husband died, in 1983.
Although Zanobia Jefferson was well aware of the toll that segregation had on her community, she tried not to let it bother her. When she went to the movies, she had to sit in the balcony, and she knew that she couldn’t try on clothes in white-owned stories. But she recognized that Jim Crow mattered less in the areas of sports and the arts, and it was important to her that she had full access to the Backus studio. Although she could have, she didn’t attend Bean’s parties, which probably had too much drinking for her taste.
When the artists Zanobia Jefferson helped mentor were first called “Highwaymen,” she disapproved of the name and was quick to say so. Regardless of the name that marked them, as her students gained national attention and grew as artists, she took pride in their accomplishments. She attended their exhibitions, hung their work in her home, and readily responded to invitations to talk about them. As a teacher, she always knew that their success was her success.
This photo shows Zanobia Jefferson (standing) with world famous artist Aaron Douglas at Fisk University.