Willie Reagan (left), Issac Knight, Rodney Demps and Mary Ann Carroll in Fort Pierce, Fla., in April 2002

In the 1960s, they were PEDDLING THEIR PAINTINGS by the side of the road. Today, those same paintings are hanging in museums.


In 1961, The Highwaymen, a collegiate folk group from Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn., had a Billboard No. 1 hit with “Michael, Row the Boat Ashore.” The song was a variation of the 1860s African-American spiritual of the same name. Also in 1961, a group of young African-American painters — 25 men and one woman— emerged from the small, ­central-Florida town of Fort Pierce to create an improbable art movement that later would be called the Florida Highwaymen.

Untouched Florida landscapes like wind-bent palm trees, serene sunsets, churning oceans and bright-red Royal Poinciana trees were their subjects of choice, and each artist hastily produced as many as 35 paintings per day, eventually amassing a collection of more than 200,000 works among them. They used whatever inexpensive materials they could find, including oil paint, tree-trunk easels and Upson board — a compressed-paper material commonly used throughout the 1950s and into the late ’70s — and fashioned their own frames from crown molding painted with gold highlights.

Often, their paintings were referred to as “junk art,” and galleries refused to sell their work. Undeterred, they took to the road or, rather, the highway, selling their art from the trunks of their cars along Interstate 95 for as little as $25. Today, though, these paintings have the respected art-world moniker of “outsider” or “folk” art (art created by artists who aren’t traditionally trained or who work outside mainstream society) and can sell for as much as $25,000, with museum and gallery exhibitions dedicated to their work.

Alfred Warner Hair (1941-1970) was the galvanizing force and founding member behind the group, which also included the eight original and earliest members: Harold Newton, Roy McLendon, James Gibson, Livingston “Castro” Roberts, Mary Ann Carroll, Sam Newton, Willie Daniels and Al Black. Hair was the only member of the original group who actually had formal training. He learned the academic principles of painting­ from A.E. “Bean” Backus, the seminal white Florida landscape painter who was known for his willingness to see beyond race. Backus­ was also known for eschewing the more traditional methods of using brushes and instead used a palette knife to apply bold colors to the canvas. He was a teacher, mentor and friend to Hair. In addition to charging him 50 cents per lesson, Backus cautioned against painting fast.

The young Hair, however, shunned his mentor’s counsel and boasted that if he was going to be a millionaire by 30, he had to paint fast. As fate would have it, the intrepid founder of the collective was murdered at the age of 29 in August 1970. The official Florida Sheriff’s Department report states that Hair was sitting in Eddie’s Place, a local bar, with Livingston “Castro” Roberts. A migrant fruit picker, Julius Funderburk, entered the dimly lit bar and started an argument with Castro. Funderburk left and returned with a nickel-plated pistol. A fracas ensued, and Hair was shot twice. Hair was rushed to Fort Pierce Memorial Hospital, where he was pronounced dead on arrival.

From that night on, the joy and passion that once fueled the group waned, and it disbanded. Most of the artists put down their brushes and took off in different directions, some taking jobs as house painters, factory workers or whatever work they could find to feed their families. Although a handful continued, by the 1980s, the country’s collective artistic taste had changed. The once popular Floridian painting style fell out of favor.