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Art, Race And Murder: Meet Florida's 'Highwaymen'

The top painting, by A.E. Backus, suggests his influence on The Highwaymen, including his pupil Alfred Hair. Hair painted the landscape below. (Courtesy of the A.E. Backus Museum and Gallery)

The story of The Highwaymen is one of biracial friendships and lingering racism, of painting and a murder — culminating in a contemporary clash over an artistic legacy.

Only loosely allied, they are credited with churning out some 200,000 landscape paintings in the area of Fort Pierce, Fla., since the 1960s. The strategy behind their enterprise: Paint a lot, and paint fast. Often, the oil paintings were sold before they had even dried. And a teenager named Alfred Hair was the mastermind behind the whole operation.

Jim Crow was effectively lingering in 1960s Fort Pierce, which was literally segregated by train tracks and was the site of Ku Klux Klan marches. Job opportunities open to young men like Hair were limited. But after a field trip to the successful studio of artist A.E. Backus, Hair knew just what to do.

Backus, to give some background, was "the dean" of the Florida landscape school, or Indian River school. His romantic paintings, in the tradition of John Constable and compared to John Singer Sargent, give the viewer all the lushness of Florida's promise. Backus sold thousands of paintings to collectors.

And Backus was exceptional in other ways, too. He kept his studio doors open to everyone, including people of color, and all kinds of people came. He loved jazz. He was friendly with Harlem Renaissance author Zora Neale Hurston, who spent her last years in Fort Pierce. And he gave the young Alfred Hair a job stretching canvases.

Soon enough, Hair himself was painting.

Hair, James Gibson and a handful of others soon hit on an irresistible marketing strategy: They would paint all day, and hire friends to sell the paintings along Route 1 — since, after all, they weren't allowed in galleries. The paintings were dreamy, Eisenhower-era landscapes of what everyone hoped Florida would be.

These painters were young, in their 20s. They worked hard and played hard. There was the dog track, there was car racing, and there were women. No one lived like The Highwaymen, the envy of their peers. And there was rivalry.

"He was very easy on the eyes," says Doretha Hair Truesdell, who married Hair in the 1960s.

And it was Hair's success and good looks that would lead to his demise. As is often the case, the legend varies depending on the storyteller. But in short:

On a fateful summer day in 1970, Hair asked Doretha if she would object to him grabbing a beer with another Highwayman. At the local bar, a jealous patron believed Hair was seeing his girlfriend and shot him in the chest; he died at 29.

That episode had the rest of The Highwaymen reeling. Their enterprise nearly died with Hair, and the market for their paintings all but dried up as tastes changed.

Recently, the publication of a few books has led to a renaissance. Paintings by The Highwaymen can command thousands today, and owners include Michelle Obama and Steven Spielberg.

Zanobia Jefferson, now 83, is the teacher who, back in the 1960s, took Alfred Hair to the Backus studio on a field trip. "I never knew, or had any idea, the far-reaching effects of that trip," she says.

It was a trip that inspired a movement, a business, an aesthetic. To this day, tensions are high between the A.E. Backus estate and The Highwaymen: Whose vision of Florida is it, really? Who should get the credit — and the money?

The truth is, the Florida of these paintings, be they by Backus or The Highwaymen, is a fast-disappearing Florida. The paintings preserve a memory of what was. And the landscape has inspired an amazing American legacy.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Now to Florida for a tale of art, race, a murder, and biracial friendships stretching back through the decades and culminating in a contemporary clash over an artistic legacy. Over the next few days, we're going to bring you a series of stories on this program, and also on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, about the Highwaymen. The Highwaymen are self-taught artists, all African-American, they're credited with making tens of thousands of paintings along Florida's east coast over the last five decades. NPR's Jackie Lyden takes us down Highway 1 to Fort Pierce.

DOROTHEA HAIR TRUESDALE: Hello, come on in. How are you?

JACKIE LYDEN, BYLINE: Good morning. How are you? Thanks so much for having us.

TRUESDALE: Come on in.

LYDEN: And this room was the...

TRUESDALE: This is the studio. This used to be a patio here.

LYDEN: Dorothea Hair Truesdale shows us around the studio home where her husband used to paint. Alfred Hair was the handsome, charismatic leader of the painters' group that would later be called The Highwaymen.

TRUESDALE: You can still see it, the line where we had the frame of the wood that we just would tack our Upson board on and put it all the way across.

LYDEN: Upson board, a material like drywall.

TRUESDALE: Paint the sky all the way across, down through there. Go on the other side and paint it, and then Alfred would come behind then put in all of the details.

LYDEN: And out they came. Luscious, vibrantly-colored coastal scenes, fiery sunsets, egrets floating in front of cypress trees. This is the business strategy behind the whole Highwaymen enterprise, paint a lot and paint fast. Often the oil paintings were sold before the paint had time to dry, and teenage Alfred Hair was the mastermind behind the whole operation.

JAMES GIBSON: Alfred was a smart dude.

LYDEN: James Gibson, Alfred Hair's friend and fellow painter.

GIBSON: He could paint fast, so people were buying the paintings real fast. He was selling paint like 19 and $20. You could paint four or five paintings in a day. That's $100 a day, but you got to go and sell your paintings.

LYDEN: They sell for thousands now, and are owned by Shaquille O'Neal, Steven Spielberg, former President George H.W. Bush, Michelle Obama. They hang in the Florida State House and at the White House.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LYDEN: Back then Alfred's goal was to sell just enough to get himself car, though he did vow to be a millionaire by the time he was 35. Driving his sky blue Mark III up and down the main drag, James Brown blasting from the car radio.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG "THINK")

JAMES BROWN: (Singing)...realize I'm the one who loves you.

LYDEN: Today the street is so quiet you can hear chickens clucking in vacant lots. But oh, says Ms. Hassie Russ, owner of Granny's Restaurant, what didn't they have in those days, when Fort Pierce was a strictly segregated city.

HASSIE RUSS: Avenue D was one of the most thriving business sections, we had hat shops, we had a bakery, we had beauty shops...

LYDEN: And with that thriving community came a supportive one. Lincoln Park Academy High prepared its students for life on the other side of the railroad, the dividing line between whites and blacks in Fort Pierce. Zanobia Jefferson, was the new art teacher in town. She took her students on a field trip to see the famous local painter, A.E. Beanie Backus. She's 83 now.

ZANOBIA JEFFERSON: I wanted them to see a professional artist at work, and Beanie and I had developed a friendship, such as it was in segregated times. But he did say I could bring my students to his studio. And I never knew or had any idea the far reaching effects of that trip.

GIBSON: Alfred had gone down to Mr. Backus. Mr. Backus was a famous white artist.

LYDEN: James Gibson remembers it this way.

GIBSON: Then he wrote and told me, James, I went to Mr. Backus and he taught me how to paint, and if I did it, I know you can do it.

TRUESDALE: Alfred saw the potential.

LYDEN: Again, Dorothea Hair Truesdale. And what did you think?

TRUESDALE: I thought it was a great idea.

LYDEN: Alfred Hair, James Gibson, and handful of others had hit on an irresistible marketing strategy. They would paint all day, and hire friends to sell for them all up and down US 1. The paintings were dreamy, idealized landscapes of what everyone hoped Florida would be.

TRUESDALE: It brings you a peace, a quietness, a joy, 'cause you can sit and gaze into the painting, just going down the river. The coolness, the breeze, it was the life, it really was the life.

LYDEN: They were young, in their 20's. They worked hard, and they played hard. There was the dog track. There was car-racing. And there were women. No one lived like the Highwaymen, the envy of their peers. And there was rivalry. On August 9th, 1970, Dorothea remembers when another member of the painters group, invited Alfred Hair to go out for a beer at Eddie's place.

I was in there braiding one of the kids' hair, and he came through that door and he asked me, do you mind if I go?

The events of that night have become legend. All the Highwaymen tell slightly different versions of what happened next, and everyone places himself in the story. Al Black was Alfred's top salesman, and claims he was there at Eddie's that night.

AL BLACK: Alfred went over to the juke box and pushed...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG "WAR")

EDWIN STARR: War. Yeah, what is it good for? Absolutely nothing.

BLACK: War. What is it good for - absolutely nothing.

TRUESDALE: All I had to say, I don't want you to go, and I didn't. I said, I don't mind, and didn't mind.

BLACK: And JL shot him in the chest.

TRUESDALE: And he never came home.

LYDEN: Alfred hair was 29, and here's where the story really becomes like a blues song.

BLACK: When took him to the hospital, I was the only one standing by the bed when he died.

GIBSON: I am the one that talked to Alfred last.

LYDEN: Artist, James Gibson.

GIBSON: He was trying to tell me something, and I put my ear - then Dr. Gould came into the room and said that Alfred Hair's retired.

TRUESDALE: Somebody took him to the hospital. Somebody did this, another did this.

LYDEN: Alfred's widow, Dorothea Hair Truesdale.

TRUESDALE: Now, you know yourself they don't let anybody into the room where somebody is, and I heard that somebody said that Alfred was calling him, and he had a tear coming out of his eye. Liar. Nothing else but.

(LAUGHTER)

TRUESDALE: Just totally not true. Unh-unh.

LYDEN: But what is true is that when Alfred Hair died, the enterprise of The Highwaymen nearly died with him.

TRUESDALE: The bottom dropped out of the world, you know. There just didn't seem to be a world after that.

LYDEN: Dorothea moved away. The Highwaymen got day jobs. Even Alfred's grave grew neglected. A tiny cracked white marble brick. Well, not anymore. We're standing at the gravesite of Alfred Hair. Alfred Hair's grave marker originally said nothing more than Alfred W. Hair, Senior, Artist. Later his friends restored this grave, and so I believe did the City of Fort Pierce, and it is a beautiful mosaic done in the Florida Highwayman style.

When he was killed, no one knew that this was really the start of the story that came to be known as the Florida Highwaymen. Jackie Lyden, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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