The Florida Highwaymen
The twenty six Florida landscape artists who were born or came to live in the Fort Pierce area were named the "Highwaymen" by Jim Fitch, an entrepreneur who wanted to establish an awareness to Florida's artistic heritage. Mr. Fitch needed a catchy name to market the group. One method the artists used to sell their works was to pack up their cars with paintings and head down the road in search for sales. This fascinated Mr. Fitch and inspired him to name the artists the "Highwaymen". In the winter of 1993 - 1994 Mr. Fitch wrote an article in an issue of Art and Artists of Florida, a publication of the Florida Masters Collection, Inc. In his essay "In Search of a Tradition," he wrote the following:
Thus was born a movement, a school, a Black, self-taught tradition that I recognize as the beginning of Florida’s residential, regional art tradition. Within that movement, that could be called The Indian River School, was a sub-group that I’ve labeled the “Highwaymen.” It was this sub-group that was responsible for feeding the demand for regional art all across Central Florida.
Many people, including the Highwaymen artists disliked the name "Highwaymen." They said it generated ideas of highway robbery. Regardless, the Highwaymen name was born and Jim Fitch was on his way to achieving his goal.
The Highwaymen were comprised of all African American artists, twenty-five men and one female who grew up in the Fort Pierce, Florida area during a time of segregation. Although opportunities were available in the area, it was much more difficult for African Americans to make a living. There was work picking fruit or vegetables in the fields, but such work was hard labor and like anyone else, the young adults who became the Highwaymen were looking for better opportunities. Painting provided this opportunity. The young artists’ success was astonishing. By the end of the 1960s, tens of thousands of paintings were created and sold. At the time, there was no 1-95 or 1-75, so the artists and salesmen moved steadily up and down the east coast of Florida and throughout the interior of the state selling their work. As salesmen, they were smart. They tried to avoid public eye because soliciting was unwelcome in many places, and African Americans moving about in white locations during segregation could be dangerous. Through hard work and determination, the Highwaymen found enthusiastic buyers who had a little money to spend for a painting that could decorate an office, a restaurant, or a hotel lobby. The Highwaymen had found their market and they were savvy about how they went about developing it.
The Highwaymen have left their mark on the world. The original painters are aging, some of whom have passed away. Those who are able, continue to paint with vigor and pride. It is still about making a living, but it is also about identity and doing something they truly love.
Jim Fitch's efforts produced the Florida Masters Collection that formed the basis for the museum of Florida Art and Culture at the College of South Florida State. Here people can view the Highwaymen collection that Mr.Fitch established and remember the artists for who they are, role models, not as perfect human beings, but individuals who struggled, sometimes failed, but ultimately transcended their designated roles through artwork.