Fort Pierce might not be one of the wealthiest little cities on Florida’s Treasure Coast (in 2008, 30.9% of the population was below the poverty line), but the town of 40-some-odd thousand does possess riches few folks know about. Among those riches is the c. 1875 Cobb building, which is located at the end of the Cracker Trail and was one of the area’s first trading posts; another is the Oculina Habitat, a particularly vital reef of ivory bush coral just off the coast.
At one time or another, Fort Pierce also happened to be home to an odd assortment of very vivid characters, including Edwin Binney, co-founder of Crayola Crayons, John Houghtaling, creator of the Magic Fingers Vibrating Bed, and Daniel T. McCarty, Florida’s 31st governor.
But of all the people for which Fort Pierce is (or should be) known, none is more important to the so-called Sunrise City than a man named A.E. Backus. In fact, Backus’s importance actually dwarfs the town itself, and it encompasses the whole of the Sunshine State.
See it was Albert Ernest Backus — “Bean” to his buddies — who portrayed our state in a series of landmark landscapes that would come to be known as “the Indian River School.” And it was Backus, a White man, who took under his wing a ragtag gaggle of Black men that’d eventually make history as “The Highwaymen.”
Backus sounds like the kinda cat everyone would be lucky to know. Zora Neale Hurston was a pal, both before and after she became a shining star of the Harlem Renaissance, as was a robust collection of local bohos, all of whom used his home as a sorta central hangout. A committed bachelor, Backus married rather late in life (at 45), to a woman 20 years his junior. And though he and his wife never had children (she died unexpectedly four years later, at 29), Wiki says “[t]here were at least 20 kids over the years that he would mentor and help put through college, [kids] that spent time at his home after school and on weekends [and] were known as ‘Backus Brats.’” In addition to the “Brats,” “there were still a few hundred more children… that [Backus] would have a strong influence upon during his lifetime.”
Among the many Backus mentored was a young man named Alfred Hair. Hair was a bold soul, and he wanted a life larger than the fruit picking and share cropping that was generally the lot of Black men of his time and place. Hanging at the home of Backus, among the jazz cats and literary kittens and the rest of their ilk, Hair got to watching how his host created those landscapes that everyone loved so, and how much money Backus made from selling them. ‘This was the life,’ imagined Hair. Then Hair got to thinking that he could live it too.
Remember though these were dark days in sunny South Florida, when Jim Crow’s caw echoed all over the state; even down to Miami, which in the early ’60s was just about as segregated as the rest of the Deep South. But Backus didn’t cotton to the prevailing order of the day; if anything he was dead set against it. And he had no problem teaching his pal Hair the tricks of the art trade.
Hair was a quick study, and he had talent to boot. And he took to the game with a certain kineticism. Lacking canvas, he used Upson board, a kinda cheap precursor to drywall. Unable to afford oil paint, he used house paint, or whatever else was available. Before long Hair had eight, ten, even a dozen paintings going at once, which was too much even for a man of his fast hands. So Hair recruited a few accomplices — one person to exclusively produce trees; another for the sky or for the sea, and so forth. And like Warhol would do in his Factory, he worked his paintings in an assembly line.
The results spoke for themselves: vivid renderings of seas and swamps, swaying palms and setting suns. They were bold yet primitive strokes of genius. What would later be considered “Outsider Art.” And Hair had found his calling.
But a Black man in the ’60s doesn’t sell his works out of a gallery, no matter how potent the paintings might be. So Hair took his show to the road, up and down A1A, knocking on doors, stopping on corners, and literally dealing from the trunk of his car. In ’64, Hair met a man named Al Black, who was faster talking then even he was, and the two set out in tandem to rule their own world.
The money came quickly, even at $25 a pop. And before long others of Hair’s or Backus’s acquaintance got in on the action. Some of them were trained by Bean; some took tips from Hair. Others simply winged it. But each and every one of them chose as their subject the Florida that was right before their eyes. By the end of their run there’d be 26 artists aligned with this new school, and 100,000+ paintings in circulation all over the state.
Then in 1970, at a joint called Eddie Drive-In, Hair and a friend named Castro were approached by another fella named Funderburk. An argument ensued, and Funderburk left to get his pistol. When he returned there was a scuffle. And by the time it was over Hair was shot down dead.
Hair’s untimely death knocked the wind from the scene, and many of the artists drifted back into obscurity. It wasn’t until 1995, when a critic named Jim Fitch identified the then nearly forgotten phenomenon as The Highwaymen that the artists took their rightful place in the world’s history books.
In 2004 every one of the 26 was inducted into the Florida Artists Hall of Fame as the Highwaymen. They are Curtis Arnett, Hezekiah Baker, Al “Blood” Black, brothers Ellis and George Buckner, Robert Butler, Mary Ann Carroll (the only woman in the group), 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.
And while a few of them came out of retirement after the ceremony and started painting again, eight of the original members are now deceased. And for all intents and purposes, the days of the Highwaymen are at an end. But the works they created will live on long after all of us are gone, perhaps even longer then the landscape itself. And forever we shall hail The Highwaymen.
For more information on The Highwaymen, we recommend Catherine M. Enns’ The Journey of the Highwaymen (Abrams $40), from which most of the images in this piece have been taken. And if you’re up in Fort Pierce, visit the A. E. Backus Gallery & Museum.