St. Lucie’s rich African American art & history goes back decades. From the famed Florida Highwaymen to renowned author Zora Neale Hurston, there’s so much to celebrate and learn. Still today, Fort Pierce prides itself and continually celebrates the spirit and determination of its African American community.
The Renowned Florida Highwaymen
First known in the 1950s as the artists who sold their work from the trunks of their cars to today’s famed Florida landscape painters. Their plentiful artistic achievements, incredible techniques, inventive styles, and collaborative spirit define their movement, and demand their place in the history of art.
Artists Harold Newton, Alfred Hair, Mary Ann Carroll, James Gibson, R.A. “Roy” McLendon, Willie Daniels and at least 20 others in Fort Pierce and surrounding communities are often described as “untrained” or “self-taught” painters, though it is well documented that several were students of Lincoln Park Academy’s revered art teacher Zanobia Jefferson. Many of the artists were also inspired and encouraged by Fort Pierce’s A.E. “Bean” Backus. A few of the artists went further to take academic art classes and even become art educators as adults.
There’s kind of a myth about the artists we now call The Highwaymen,” says J. Marshall Adams, Executive Director of the A.E. Backus Museum, “that they were naïve and because they didn’t go to art school, they didn’t know what they were doing. But the paintings tell a different story. They knew things, they learned things, they figured things out that are strikingly similar to the artists we’re accustomed to seeing in the text books and throughout history. Making those connections can give us a new appreciation for the accomplishments of this unique art movement that began right here.”
Want to learn more about The Highwaymen?
Visit the A.E. Backus Museum & Gallery and dive right into the art & history of the Florida Highwaymen year-round. Visitors to the Museum in February 2023 can enjoy the latest in the annual series of special exhibitions recognizing the extraordinary movement of the Highwaymen called, Dashboard Dreams. There are over 50 original paintings, including works from private collections never before seen by the public, that were painted at the same time the American auto industry was fashioning the postwar aspirations for car ownership. The special exhibition expands upon the permanent display of Highwaymen paintings on view. For more information, visit www.BackusMuseum.org.
Year-round, visitors can take the self-guided Highwaymen Trail through Fort Pierce. The 10 station driving trail begins at the Seven Gables House in downtown Fort Pierce, and includes a stop at the home and art studio of Beanie Backus.
The Remarkable Zora
Zora Neale Hurston, the great Harlem Renaissance author lived an amazing and colorful life and spent her last years in Fort Pierce. Best known for her novels; Their Eyes Were Watching God and Mules and Men, Hurston grew up in Eatonville, Florida the first community in the United States where African Americans were given the right to govern themselves. Hurston then traveled to New York as the Harlem Renaissance was in full swing.
Toward the end of her life, Hurston settled in Fort Pierce. The Zora Neale Hurston Dust Tracks Heritage Trail was established to commemorate her time here in Fort Pierce. The driving trail takes you to her home, the library that carries her name (and a collection of writings and photos), and her gravesite which was unmarked until 1973, when Alice Walker, author of The Color Purple donated her gravestone describing Zora as ‘A genius of the south.’ Take the self guided Zora Neale Hurston Dust Tracks Heritage Trail through Fort Pierce to discover their fascinating journey how she embraced writing to overcome adversity.
“Sometimes, I feel discriminated against, but it does not make me angry. It merely astonishes me. How can any deny themselves the pleasure of my company? It’s beyond me.”
Zora Neale Hurston
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