Last Updated on February 13, 2023
Visitors to the A.E. Backus Museum Fort Pierce will see landscape paintings from its namesake along with artworks from the Florida Highwaymen artist group he supported. Backus and the Highwaymen have long been linked, for good reason. Backus was born, raised and lived out his life in tiny Fort Pierce, FL which served as epicenter for the Highwaymen. He trained Alfred Hair, who along with Harold Newton, are the two most celebrated Highwaymen artists. Both Backus and the Highwaymen created images of rural Florida before it was chewed up by interstates, developers and theme parks.
There is a danger in conjoining their lives and legacies however, a danger which risks minimizing the accomplishments of both.
A.E. Backus (1906–1990) was Florida’s most successful landscape painter long before Newton came knocking at his door in 1954. His story does take on a richer, important humanitarian depth, however, when considering the help he gave the Highwaymen artists – all Black – during the Jim Crow area of segregation and the struggle for Civil Rights which was hotly contested in Florida.
Set aside your mouse-eared, “Welcome to Miami” visions of the Sunshine State for a minute. Florida had more Ku Klux Klan activity than any state in America. The first martyrs of the Civil Rights movement, Harry T. and Harriette Moore, were dynamited to death in their home on Christmas Day 1951 for registering Black voters. America’s most racist sheriff, Willis McCall, long called Lake County north of Orlando home, engaging in a decades long reign of racial terror and murder. St. Augustine was referred to by Martin Luther King Jr. as the most lawless city he’d ever seen. Race massacres in Rosewood and Ocoee.
This history is not shared at the state’s tourist welcome centers along with a free cup of orange juice. It’s the history Florida’s current white nationalist governor Ron DeSantis seeks to keep buried through his statewide book bans, board of education purges and denial of African American history courses.
Backus was a progressive. He welcomed African Americans into his home – through the front door – same as whites. Shocking to many in his day in this part of the world on Florida’s Atlantic coast 60 miles north of Palm Beach. He opened his home to the Highwaymen. He let them crash at his house if they needed a place to stay. He’d give them painting supplies if they were in a bind. The success he experienced as a landscape painter planted the seed within Newton, which spread to the rest of the group, that art could be a viable way to support themselves and their families outside of the backbreaking labor and paltry wages found in the state’s citrus field.
He unfailingly treated the Highwaymen with respect and dignity, something which couldn’t be said for most whites at the time.
The A.E. Backus Museum Fort Pierce shares this story, but it’s important to remember that Backus was a great painter too. The Highwaymen are not the only aspect of Backus worth knowing. Increasingly though, because of the surging prominence of the Highwaymen, Backus’ own talent as a painter has been diminished for the reductive telling of his story which positions him as some sort of Mr. Miyagi mentor to the group.
That’s not accurate and has a tinge of white savior complex to it.
Yes, Backus provided support to the Highwaymen in myriad ways, but understand, the artists who are recognized as the “original” Florida Highwaymen numbered 26. Backus only trained one of them: Hair. These artists were grown folks dispersed across this part of the state, traveling the highways selling their paintings from the backs of their cars and roadsides because they were blocked out of galleries and retail shoppes by segregation. That’s where the “Highwaymen” name comes from.
The Highwaymen achieved their success themselves. Backus helped where he could, he provided something of a model to follow, but it was individual talent, hustle and entrepreneurship on behalf of the Highwaymen artists through the decades – many of whom had no connection or relationship with Backus at all – which landed them to the Florida Artists Hall of Fame in YEAR.
Backus is important to the legacy of the Florida Highwaymen. The Florida Highwaymen are important to the legacy of Backus. When considering both or either, it’s important to remember they also stand on their own.
Inside the Museum
The intimate Backus Museum Fort Pierce includes a gallery dedicated to the work of Backus, about 40 paintings spanning his career, a standing exhibition of Florida Highwaymen paintings, 20 or so offering an introduction to the group, a temporary exhibition space and a small welcome area and gift shop. The museum sits on a marina overlooking the Indian River Lagoon about a quarter mile north of the historic Fort Pierce downtown.
Separately or together, the Backus Museum Fort Pierce is the best place in Florida to learn about Backus and the Highwaymen and see their artwork. Representation of Highwaymen artists remains embarrassingly low within the permanent collections of the state’s many wonderful art museums. Works by Backus, similarly, can be found here and there, but are few and far between. At the Backus Museum, you’ll find a wealth of both.
The Backus Museum Fort Pierce can be adequately enjoyed in an hour making it a great side trip for travels in Florida along I-95. It’s about 15 minutes from the interstate. In Fort Pierce, take a couple extra minutes to see the final home of Zora Neal Hurston as well. The celebrated ethnographer and author died here in poverty and obscurity. Backus welcomed her into his home as well.
Grab a fresh baked pizza and cold craft beer at Sailfish Brewing downtown. The White Marlin Belgian style wit, Red Wrasse kettle sour with raspberry, vanilla and mint, and Tiki Beach Retreat golden ale brewed with mango, pineapple and guava are easy going and refreshing; the Lionfish pale ale with jalapenos, cilantro and lime packs a feisty, spicy kick. Whooo-Weee!
When visiting the A.E. Backus Museum Fort Pierce, I prefer staying at the Kimpton Vero Beach Hotel and Spa one town north. The Home2 Suites is a suitable and more affordable option right by the interstate in Vero Beach.artBlack historyhistoryVero Beach