The opening of the Highwaymen Museum is a dream come true
BY ANNA INGRAM
The creation of the Highwaymen Museum, which is opening in Fort Pierce in February, didn’t happen overnight. It started about 63 years ago when Doretha met Alfred Hair at Coley’s Drive-in on 25th Street in Fort Pierce.
It was 1959, and 16-year-old Doretha had just moved from West Virginia to Fort Pierce with her siblings to live with their older sister after their mother had died. As she was a high school graduate, Doretha worked as a waitress at a segregated bus station on U.S. 1 and Avenue D to help support her siblings.
Within a month of moving to the city, she met Alfred and her first impression of him was memorable.
“Alfred asked me if the schools were integrated in West Virginia,” she recalled. “I told him no. That question made me take notice of him. It was a strange question to me as the other guys were trying to get a date.”
It wasn’t much longer after their first encounter that the pair started to date. Alfred was still a student at Lincoln Park Academy, taking art classes from Zanobia Jefferson. Doretha said she had no idea that Alfred wanted to be an artist. But everything changed when she discovered that Albert “Bean” Backus was mentoring him.
According to Doretha, Alfred was very dedicated to her and her siblings, helping them whenever he could. Alfred even insisted that Doretha pursue college and in 1960, the couple moved to Tallahassee so she could attend Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University.
The couple lived in Frenchtown while Alfred created his paintings and Doretha painted his frames. In 1963, Alfred proposed at Christmas. Unfortunately, because Doretha didn’t have a birth certificate, they were denied a marriage license.
Because he was unsuccessful at selling his paintings in Tallahassee, he would drive to South Florida, stay until he sold his paintings and go back north to repeat the process.
By 1965, the couple had moved back to Fort Pierce and Alfred’s art career took off. He became so successful that he taught Doretha how to paint the backgrounds of his paintings to produce more work.
SOLD LIKE HOTCAKES
He then hired a salesman, Clarence “Zoom” Banks, because he realized he would have more time to paint if Banks sold his works. Banks was so successful that Alfred and Doretha had to hire another salesman, Al Black. Since Alfred needed more paintings for two salespeople, Doretha continued to help paint his backgrounds with the help of her younger brother, Carnell Smith.
With Doretha’s unwavering dedication to Alfred’s art career, Alfred co-founded a group of painters now known as the Highwaymen. A group of 26 African American artists comprised The Highwaymen, who had started painting Florida landscapes in the 1950s.
Faced with unprecedented circumstances, the group did not let racial segregation get in their way of becoming successful artists. Since they couldn’t sell their art in whites-only galleries, they would park their vehicles on the side of the road and sell their paintings to tourists and residents passing by.
The Highwaymen’s colorful works capture the essence of Florida’s beauty. During more than two decades, they created at least 200,000 works of art. The paintings are energetic, vibrant and overall beautiful representations of Florida landscapes painted from memory.
On Feb. 7, 1966, Alfred and Doretha finally married. Together they had four children, Alfred Jr., Sherry, Roderick and Lisa. Then tragically, on Aug. 9, 1970, Alfred was killed at Eddie’s on Avenue D, seven weeks after his youngest daughter, Lisa, was born.
According to Doretha, all four of their children have artistic gifts, but only Roderick is a professional painter. And she has continued her artwork. In 1980, Doretha married John Truesdell Jr. and relocated to New Jersey. But her dream of creating the Highwaymen Museum never wavered.
Doretha’s younger brother, Highwaymen artist Carnell Smith, was president of the Highwaymen organization when she was secretary. Smith tried establishing a Highwaymen Museum in Fort Pierce years ago, but he died of cancer in 2015. “I never gave up on the dream,” she said. “I was determined to work with the City of Fort Pierce to establish a Highwaymen Museum before I close my eyes for the last time. Everything happens in its own time. Alfred’s impact on the phenomenon of what is now the Florida Highwaymen cannot be underestimated. His desire to teach and share his love of art with everyone contributed to young men becoming salesmen and artists even though he was only 29 years old when he was killed.”
Today, there is a significant connection between the Backus Museum and the Highwaymen Museum. They share members on each of their boards. Also, Backus worked with Harold Newton and Alfred, who he trained, to inspire others to try painting. As a result, they formed an informal group out of the Indian River School and learned skills from one another.
The creation of the Highwaymen Museum represents a historic moment for African American artists. In February, the museum will open in the Jackie L. Caynon Sr. Building, which was renovated by a grant from the Department of State, Arts and Culture Division.
The plan is to display the works of all 26 original Highwaymen on the second floor with plans for a community art studio on the first floor.
1234 Avenue D, Fort Pierce
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or call 609.529.4990.
See the original article in print publication
Dec. 29, 2022