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Florida Highwaymen: The women share their vibrant stories

When the first vibrant sunsets and moonlit beaches of Florida Highwaymen paintings blazed to life more than 50 years ago, Mary Ann Carroll and Doretha Hair Truesdell were there.

The Highwaymen painters became known for quickly creating vivid scenes of wild Florida. The works — often still wet — were sold from the trunks of the artists' cars along U.S. Highway 1 for as little as $10 in the late 1950s and '60s.

Today, some original oils sell for tens of thousands of dollars.

The two women have added their own brush strokes to one of the most fantastic stories in American art, a colorful tale of survival and prosperity forged during the dark days of segregation in the Deep South.

While Carroll is renowned as the only woman among the African-American painters from Fort Pierce, Truesdell, the widow of the movement's founder, Alfred Hair, remains a footnote.

On Friday and Saturday, Carroll and Truesdell join seven Highwaymen painters for a show at the historic Sample-McDougald House in Pompano Beach, sponsored by the home's preservation society and the city's Historical Society.

Stories of survival

"I had two strikes against me when I started painting," Carroll, 73, says from her Fort Pierce home. "Being black and being a woman. This was all about survival."

Carroll, who started painting when she was 17, was mentored by the late Harold Newton. He and Hair are the most highly regarded among the Highwaymen artists, says Howard Brassner, a Highwayman expert who owns Art Link International, a gallery in Lake Worth. "Their works can sell for as much as $40,000."

The loose-knit art movement expanded around Fort Pierce when others discovered that brushes and palette knives would help them escape a life of hard labor picking tomatoes and oranges.

"I was a painter and a salesman and a mother and a daddy. I painted houses, did yards, I did whatever I had to do to keep food on the table for my seven kids," Carroll says.

Back then, Carroll sold 12-by-24 inch paintings for $12.50 and 18-by-24s for $25.

"Thank you to everyone who bought a painting from me," she says. "You helped me feed my kids and I couldn't have done it without you."

Carroll peddled her paintings out of the trunk of her Buick Electra. "I didn't sell my paintings on the side of the road because it wasn't ladylike," she says. "I took mine into offices and businesses and schools, the courthouse and churches up and down the Florida coast."

In 2004, Carroll was one of 26 members of the original Highwaymen inducted into the Florida Artists Hall of Fame. Nine have died.

"I was highly surprised to be put in there," Carroll says. "We just were doing this to make a dollar. But then people started liking our work and the recognition came."

Carroll is the subject of an upcoming book by Gary Monroe, the Daytona State College professor who nominated the painters to the Florida Artists Hall of Fame after publishing “The Highwaymen” in 2001.

Truesdell, who lives in the house where Hair started painting, feels left out.

"I'm thrilled for Ms. Carroll, but I wish I were in there, too," Truesdell, 71, says of the Hall of Fame. "They done left me out. I'm the forgotten Highwayman. That's a pain in my heart.

"Maybe that's a wrong that will one day be righted. I cannot know. I just keep on painting."

Early days

Truesdell says she was there from the very beginning.

"Alfred started the whole enterprise out of this house right here on Dunbar Street in Fort Pierce," Truesdell says.

"I always shellacked the Upson boards for Alfred and did the backgrounds of all his paintings. He would then do the details. It was an assembly line.

"Every morning, the salesmen would come here to this house and pick up the paintings and take off down the highway."

Truesdell's younger brother, Carnell "Pete" Smith, was 14 when he started painting. "That helped with the production," she says. "If we sold volume, we made $300 or $400 a day. That was good money then.

"Alfred taught Carnell how to paint backgrounds in the beginning. Then Carnell started painting on his own, and I did, too."

It was a harrowing tragedy that brought Truesdell and her brother to Fort Pierce.

"In 1959, my father killed my mother in West Virginia where we lived. There were nine of us kids. He would drink that moonshine on the weekends.

"He got up out of the bed while she was in the kitchen putting water in a tin tub so we could scrub the front porch. He beat her with a crowbar in the kitchen."

Truesdell stops to compose herself before reliving that June day when she was 17.

"I don't know how many times he hit her. I know my mother was dead on that floor. Her name was Fannie Baertha Lee Smith."

Her father went to prison for 20 years for the murder, she said. "My older sister, Christine, then moved the family to Fort Pierce. That's how I met Alfred."

The couple married in 1966 and had four children. Hair was murdered in a Fort Pierce bar in 1970, she said.

Truesdell moved to Lauderhill in 1978 to be near Hair's father, who lived in Hallandale Beach. She taught fifth grade at Tropical Elementary School in Plantation for two years. She remarried in 1980.

She eventually returned to Dunbar Street.

Recognition at last

“There is a lot of politics involved in the Highwaymen saga,” says Brassner, who has nearly 400 Highwaymen paintings in his Lake Worth gallery.

“Today there are conflicting stories about people who claim they should be listed as an official Highwayman and should be in the Hall of Fame. I don’t know much about Doretha Hair. There really is only one woman, and it’s Mary Ann Carroll.”

Still, author Monroe says “Doretha is an essential part of the history of the Highwaymen.”
Brassner, who directed the 2008 PBS documentary “The Highwaymen, Legends of the Road,” has a Carroll work for sale valued at $8,000. “It’s a beautiful scene of the Rainbow River in Dunnellon. It used to hang in her church.”

For the past three years, the Highwaymen have filled the Sample-McDougald House with hundreds of paintings of their signature royal poincianas and colorful landscapes of an unspoiled Florida. This year, Al Black, James Gibson, John Maynor, Roy McLendon, Willie Reagan, Charles Walker and Carnell Smith are scheduled to attend along with Carroll and Truesdell.

“That is a lovely house and the people in South Florida are so gracious,” Truesdell says. “They love hearing the story of the paintings. This is a way for me to pay homage to Alfred. I know Alfred is there in the house watching and is happy to be recognized.”

dchristensen@sunsentinel.com

If you go

What: Third annual Highwaymen Art Show

When: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturday, with 5:30 p.m. Friday reception

Where: Sample-McDougald House, 450 NE 10th St., Pompano Beach

Cost: Friday's reception is $50; Saturday's entry is $5

Contact: 954-292-8040, SampleMcDougaldHouse.com

Colorful history

See Highwayman paintings and hear Doretha Hair Truesdell discuss the painter's legacy. SouthFlorida.com/Highwaymen

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