In the era known as “Reconstruction”, the period immediately following the abolishment of slavery in the United States, the conditions for African-Americans hadn’t necessarily advanced. Some changes, including the selection of blacks in Congress, gave African-Americans empowerment and civic participation, but these adjustments to the racially charged climate were short lived, and African Americans had to fight tooth and nail for any semblance of social equality. The narrative for blacks during this time particularly focused on struggle, strife, and conflict. Yet from this tumultuous period, African Americans determined to be recognized as equals expressed themselves artistically and transformed the cultural landscape forever. The creative eruption known as the Harlem Renaissance produced a myriad of imaginative and aesthetic music, literature, drama, poetry and visual art. The time frame of the movement is generally recognized as spanning from 1920 to the mid 1930s, but its influence and significance had lasting impression on future artists around the world.
Fast forward 20 years later to the inception of the civil rights movement; segregation, Jim Crow laws, and various forms of racial discrimination continued to blemish the artificial makeup of American culture. Racial barriers constructed to exclude blacks from politics to education, also deterred them from the traditional world of art. Instead of giving in to the overwhelming racism permeating throughout the nation, a group of 26 African American artists followed in the footsteps of their predecessors, and began producing work outside of the esoteric walls of the white world. Known as the Florida Highwaymen, these brave and courageous artists taught and mentored each other instead of insisting on soliciting assistance from their oppressors. In the 1950’s through the 1980’s, these artists rendered radiant landscapes depicting the placid Florida scenery of their day. Their style included the use of luminous colors to highlight the untouched Florida setting. They painted palm trees leaning elegantly against cotton colored clouds rustled by a calm wind, tranquil sunsets actualized with oranges and yellows fading into the backdrop of a dimming sky, and sapphire oceans that seemed to sway calmly against the canvas.
Alfred Hair, the original Highwayman, understood the artistic climate and knew he and his group of artists had to enter the art world with a distinctive approach. Where galleries were willing to patronize white painters schooled by prominent teachers and sell their work for hundreds of dollars, the Highwaymen painted in their homes, garages, and backyards. They weren’t privy to the same tools and resources as their white counterparts, and would travel to sell their own paintings on weekends to art enthusiasts for around $25.
Their drive and focus to make something from nothing is reminiscent of the Hip Hop movement of the early 1980s; African Americans in poor communities made instruments out of record players because they didn’t have access to traditional instruments. Like the artists of the Harlem Renaissance before them, the Highwaymen ushered in a remarkable artistic movement. They are pioneers who proved that in order to follow your dreams, you can’t wait around for the rest of the world to anoint you. The Highwaymen’s story is encouraging, influential and inspiring for anyone willing to sacrifice in order to pursue their passions. If you would like to learn more about the Highwaymen, check out www.floridahighwaymen.com.