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Journey back to the beginning



Highwaymen Mural

Individual plaques on a mosaic at the Intermodal Transit Facility at 725 Avenue D mark the end of Highwaymen Heritage Trail. The panel is the work of Fort Pierce artists Anita Prentice and Pat Cochran. JOHN BIONDO PHOTO

New trail offers glimpse into the Highwaymen’s lives

BY WILLI MILLER

For some, fame can take a while. The original handful of the 26 African American artists known as the Highwaymen began painting almost a half-century before they were given the world-famous name by Jim Fitch, a collector of Florida art. The moniker, a reference to their custom of selling their art by the roadside, first appeared in a feature article he wrote for Antiques and Art Around Florida in the mid-1990s.

And as their fame grew after the publication of a New York Times article in 2001, so did efforts to educate the public about their work and lives, resulting in The Highwaymen Heritage Trail. The city’s newest tourist attraction is the culmination of a four-year endeavor that included extensive input from the City of Fort Pierce, the artists, researchers, designers, filmmakers, residents and historians. It was funded by a $30,000 grant from the Florida Humanities Council and the National Endowment for the Humanities. The trail’s website, TheHighwaymenTrail.com, complements the trail and is recommended as an introduction to the self-guided tour. Maps are available at various stops.

“The idea for the Highwaymen Heritage Trail began at Fort Pierce City Hall following several meetings with many of the Highwaymen artists and with the opening of a grant opportunity from the Florida Humanities Council in 2011,’’ said Libby Woodruff, grants administrator for the City of Fort Pierce.

Although the Highwaymen and their painting style have been closely associated with renowned Florida and Caribbean landscape artist A.E. “Bean” Backus, only Alfred Hair studied with him. Through Hair and Harold Newton, Backus’ influence carried over to the other artists.

The A.E. Backus Museum & Gallery, the first stop on the trail, has held exhibits and special events focused on the Highwaymen and their art. The gallery is holding an exhibition, Pass It On – Vintage Paintings by the Original Florida Highwaymen, Feb. 17-Mar. 11.

Next door is the Seven Gables House, the Fort Pierce visitors center, which has an interesting history of its own displayed in its rooms that are open to the public.

Following the map, the next stop is the A.E. Backus Studio, where Backus lived, painted and mentored many an aspiring artist. Backus was inducted into the Florida Artists Hall of Fame in 1984, the Highwaymen, 20 years later in 2004.

Next stop, the Pine Grove Cemetery, at 10th Street and Avenue K, is the final resting place of Hair, Livingston “Castro” Roberts and Johnny “Hook” Daniels.

The fourth stop is Lincoln Park Academy, 1806 Avenue I, where many of the artists studied art with Zanobia Jefferson, who was responsible for bringing Hair and Backus together. Next is the Dunbar House, where Hair and his wife Doretha provided artistic and social hospitality to the artists.

Hair figures again in the sixth stop on the Trail, Eddie’s Place, 1907 Avenue D. Although there are several versions of what happened at that juke joint on Aug. 9, 1970, it was a bar fight there that ended Hair’s young life. He was 29.

The seventh stop, an obelisk at Avenue D and 15th Street commemorating the work of the Highwaymen, is the work of Florida artist Stephanie Jaffe Werner. She created mosaic versions of the artists’ paintings.

The next stop, Moore’s Creek Linear Park, is the neighborhood at Avenue B and 10th Street that was home to artists Harold Newton and Mary Ann Carroll, the only woman in the group.

The trail ends at the Intermodal Transit Facility at 725 Avenue D, where all 26 artists are honored with individual brass plaques.

The Highwaymen are Curtis Arnett, Hezekiah Baker, Al “Blood” Black, brothers Ellis and George Buckner, Robert Butler, Mary Ann Carroll, brothers Johnny and Willie Daniels, Rodney Demps, James Gibson, Alfred Hair, Isaac Knight, Robert Lewis, John Maynor, Roy McLendon, Alfonso “Pancho” Moran, brothers Sam, Lemuel and Harold Newton, Willie Reagan, Livingston “Castro” Roberts, Cornell “Pete” Smith, Charles Walker, Sylvester Wells, and Charles “Chico” Wheeler.

Of these, nine are considered “original” Highwaymen: Harold Newton, Alfred Hair, Roy McLendon, James Gibson, Livingston Roberts, Mary Ann Carroll, Sam Newton, Willie Daniels and Al Black.