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Doretha Hair Truesdell remembers racing to grab her keys and running to get to the car. She sped down Dunbar Street so fast it felt like her vehicle swung the corner on two wheels. But as she hurtled to the hospital that August night, the grim reality started to sink in: There was no need to rush. Her husband was already dead.

In the days that followed, fresh fears closed in. Without her husband, there was no income, and she had four mouths to feed. Her youngest was barely 7 weeks old, and the eldest, not yet 7 years. 

The funeral had to be paid for on credit. Alfred Hair was laid to rest under a plain concrete slab—no headstone, no frills. Just a flat marker engraved with the essentials: name, date of birth, and date of death. That, and a profession: artist. 

"Gone but not forgotten," the cemetery entrance reads. It was cold comfort, but prophetic in Alfred's case: Decades would pass, but one day, he would grow more famous than he had ever been in life. 

In some ways, the story told about Alfred Hair is the story told about many great artists. It's the tale of a prodigy cut down before his time, before his genius could reach its height, before his impact could be fully felt. It's a tale of injustice. And more often than not, it's a man's tale.

Time would turn experience into memory, and memory into haze. Man would morph into myth. In that myth, supporting characters would take shape: friend, mentor, child, wife. 

Doretha felt that pressure, to become scaffolding in another man's story. She heard it sometimes, too. 

"You're just the wife. That's what I was told. You're the wife," she says. "It's as though you didn't exist. I mean, how do you write someone out of history?" She was determined not to be erased. 


Something unique had happened in South Florida in the '50s and '60s. A group of self-taught African-American artists flouted the limitations of the Jim Crow South to become what's known as the "last great American art movement of the 20th century." 

Alfred Hair was chief among them—a leader, a figurehead. His art typified what the movement would be celebrated for: its rapid-fire interpretation of Florida's disappearing landscapes. 

With his swift, gestural style, Alfred painted hundreds of canvases, with fiery sunsets, windswept beaches and tangled marshland. It was Eden in the guise of Florida, a vision of paradise he and his fellow painters could summon with the stroke of a brush, free from segregation, lush with possibility. In other words, a tantalizing mirage.

In the 1990s, collectors branded these artists "the Highwaymen," a nod to the way they used to drive from place to place, selling their art. Gallery showings weren't an option back then—not in that time, not in that place, and especially not for Black artists.

Doretha Hair Truesdell. Photo by the author.

With the new brand name came surging interest. By the 2000s, paintings that once sold for pennies or sat mildewing in storage started to command thousands, if not tens of thousands of dollars. Collectors scrambled to snap them up. Michelle Obama owned one. So did Shaquille O'Neal and Steven Spielberg.

How these Black painters forged successful careers at a time when the art world was largely off-limits due to segregation proved to be the feel-good story everyone wanted to hear. Books were written. Documentaries were made. And particular attention was paid to Alfred and the tragedy that ended his life. Members of the community moved to spruce up his modest grave. 

But all this came as a shock to his widow, Doretha. She says no one had told her about the grave renovation. No one had even asked her about her husband's story. The only reason she found out was because her eldest son, Alfred Jr., had heard about it from a friend. 

It was as if her husband's legacy was being stolen from her, "like someone killed Alfred all over again." Never had she felt more disrespected.


The night Doretha first clapped eyes on Alfred, she and her sister Christine Reeves were relaxing at a local hot spot after work. It was August 1959. And there he was, all muscles and charm, with the kind of thin mustache matinee idols wore. Alfred Hair, ladies' man.

"I didn't think he would be good for her," Christine recalls. "Too many girls liked Alfred—half of Fort Pierce!"


It was cold comfort, but prophetic in Alfred's case: Decades would pass, but one day, he would grow more famous than he had ever been in life. 

Doretha was new to the small Florida town, but already she was smitten. Alfred made the boys back home in West Virginia seem puny. And she was struck by that funny thing he asked: Were the schools up in West Virginia segregated too? 

She never could shake that question— its innocence, its hope. Yet, somehow Alfred seemed older than his age. It was only later she discovered that he was, in fact, just a teenager like her. "If I had known that, I never would have started dating him," she says with a laugh. 

Alfred was ambitious, though. He sought mentorship from the most famous painter in town, A.E. Backus, and harbored dreams of making it big as an artist. 

That was something Doretha could relate to. She had lofty goals herself. Already a high school graduate at 16, she felt college beckoning. She thought that maybe one day she'd land a job at a bank, though she knew she'd need twice as much education as a white woman to do it.

The two teens soon started dating, but early on their relationship was rocky. They broke up and dated around. "He knew, if he had somebody, I was going to have me somebody," Doretha says. "He could not stand that for money!"

But when Doretha enrolled at Florida A&M University in Tallahassee, she faced the prospect of leaving Fort Pierce—and Alfred—behind. Alfred wasn't ready for that. He moved to Tallahassee while she pursued her degree.

The snag was that Alfred wanted to get married, but Doretha most certainly did not. "I had seen enough of marriage. I wanted no part of it," she says. After all, it was a marriage gone awry that brought her to Florida in the first place. 


Life in the mining town of Glen White, West Virginia, had been tough, but it was even tougher when 

Doretha's father, Allison Smith, was around. "He was the devil himself, walking on this earth," Christine recalls.

The terror he wrought followed a familiar pattern. First, Smith would drink. Then he would turn to his wife, Fannie B. Smith. The beatings were so bad, he sometimes broke bones. But Fannie, a religious woman, stood by her husband. She once reassured Christine that her snapped arm was only accident: the product of a tumble down stairs. 

Christine didn't buy it. From age 7 onwards, she says she carried a knife around her leg, just in case. The violence drove her to desperation: "I just begged my uncle to kill him." 

The eldest of nine, Christine ultimately left home, settling in Florida. But Doretha was younger and very close to her mother. "I thought she knew only three words: I'ma tell Momma," Christine says.

In Glen White, poverty was the norm. Many mining employees got paid in scrip, not money, and that scrip could only be redeemed at the company store. The system kept families like the Smiths trapped in debt, and trapped in Glen White.

Photos of paintings provided by Roger Lightle/Highwaymen Art Specialists.

Allison Smith sometimes went missing, an occurrence Doretha considered a blessing. Newspapers would later report he received treatment at West Virginia's Lakin State Hospital for the Colored Insane, an institution famous for perfecting the "ice-pick" lobotomy on Black patients. 

Whenever Smith returned, Fannie inevitably fell pregnant. The pressure of eight siblings, plus several miscarriages, weighed on Doretha. 

"Me and my smart mouth, I said, 'I'm not going to help you with this baby,'" Doretha recalls. She half expected Fannie to slap her. But Fannie never did.


At first, what happened on the morning of June 13, 1959, seemed like more of the same. Doretha was in the house, preparing to scrub the front porch. She heard a fight brewing. Her father was drunk. Her mother was standing in the kitchen, telling him to leave.

There was an iron bar that stretched across the kitchen door, helping to fasten it shut. Smith walked into the room and grabbed it. He swung, and it struck Fannie across the head. Doretha watched as her mother crumpled to the floor. She was only 37.

There was blood and bone, and Doretha found herself in a daze. Children were running. Screaming. Doretha tried to flee. The next thing she knew, she was rushing down the steps, right into her next-door neighbor. He was holding a gun and speaking past her. "If you put your hand on her, I'll blow your head off." She hadn't realized her father was right behind her.

The next day, Christine received the news she'd been dreading her whole life. Her mother was dead. It was now her duty to take care of her younger siblings.

Money was tight, so she hitched a ride with strangers to West Virginia. "At that time, things seemed so hopeless and so bad, it was okay if I lived, and it was okay if I didn't," Christine says. "All I knew was that my little sisters didn't have a mother."

Fannie's death continues to haunt Doretha. No matter what, she vowed never to meet the same fate. No man would ever subjugate her. She would be independent. A career woman. Not cloistered in the house, struggling to raise so many children. She told it to Alfred up front, "I will not be a housewife." 


Today, as Doretha looks through the curtains in the sitting room she and Alfred once shared, she still sees the landmarks that divided Fort Pierce. Over there, that row of pines, that canal—they once split neighborhoods into Black and white, into where you belonged and where you didn't. 

Back then, many Black men found employment in Fort Pierce's fields and groves. But Florida was changing. Wetlands were transforming into suburbs. And postwar prosperity brought a booming demand for art.

To feed that hunger, Alfred sprinted through his paintings, scraping colors so thin, you could sometimes see the bare board beneath them. The effect was crude but enchanting, like jazz with paint flecks. 

"This is one of the few instances I'm aware of where art and commerce were good bedfellows," says Highwaymen historian Gary Monroe. He considers the Highwaymen's art to be transformative.

"The Highwaymen corrupted all the cherished concerns of landscape painting, not by design, but by chance," he explains. "By painting fast, they arrived at a fresher interpretation of the land."

To feed that hunger, Alfred sprinted through his paintings, scraping colors so thin, you could sometimes see the bare board beneath them. The effect was crude but enchanting, like jazz with paint flecks.

Monroe credits Alfred in particular with being a leader, even a Civil Rights icon, for his work lifting the fortunes of others. Alfred was only a teenager when he started painting, but even then, he had a strong sense of duty.

The very first Christmas Doretha and her siblings spent in Fort Pierce, they had almost no money, but Alfred made sure they all had gifts. He steered Doretha's younger brother Pete out of trouble and into the art business. Pete and other young Black men worked for Alfred as apprentices and salesmen. 

That's how painter Al Black got his start. He arrived in Fort Pierce from Mississippi, where he says he'd grown up picking cotton for two dollars per hundred-pound bushel. Selling Alfred's paintings, though, netted him a couple hundred dollars a day. 

"Back then, we were the talk of the town, because we had more money than the average man walking around," Black says. That meant new cars, clothes and weekends at the dog track. But with that success came attention. And the attention would prove deadly.


What Jon Ward saw at the foot of Alfred's grave was a tragedy. Had he not known where to look, he might have missed the grave entirely. It was the exact opposite of the man he'd heard about: weathered and worn, with none of the exuberance Alfred had in life.

By the 2000s, Florida's salt air and heat had done their worst to the burial slab. So too had the occasional lawnmower. The burial plaque was in pieces, its inscription scattered in the grass. Only one word remained: artist.

"That, to me, was a terrible thing. It was an injustice," says Ward, then-director of cultural affairs for Florida's St. Lucie County. There lay a painter who helped lift others out of poverty, who provided hope and opportunity to his community, in an increasingly decrepit grave. "I thought he deserved better." 

The night Alfred died, in August 1970, the jukebox wailed. Alfred himself had chosen the song: the protest anthem "War" by Edwin Starr. 

Life is much too short and precious to be fighting wars these days, Starr growled from the speakers of Eddie's Place, a juke joint on Avenue D with a low, sloping roof.

It ain't nothing but a heartbreaker, Starr sang, friend only to the undertaker. Doretha was at home, but she knew Alfred's success made him a target for jealousy. "It looked like everything he touched turned to gold."

War has shattered many young men's dreams, made them disabled, bitter and mean. An agricultural worker named J. L. Funderburk was also at the bar that evening, and rumor was that he thought Alfred was flirting with a woman he liked. 

War has caused unrest, within the younger generation. Al Black says he was at Eddie's Place that night. He remembers Funderburk telling the barroom, "I'll kill every one of you painters," before stepping outside. 

Induction, then destruction. Funderburk returned with a gun. Who wants to die? Gunfire felled Alfred Hair. 


"Just like that, everything died." As Doretha recalls that night, she looks around at the canvases, the walls, the family photos grinning up from their frames. She weighs each word, each syllable. "Everything died. The painting, the people. Everything." 

Behind the highlight reel, behind the Alfred Hair success story, there had been a more complicated tale: a tale of compromise, uncertainty, and everyday worries. Art had been a gamble. And with Alfred's death, his family's fortunes inexorably shifted. 

There was no life insurance. No income. No fallback plan. It was like Doretha's marriage had come to a halt before it really began.

She had been reluctant to marry Alfred. Marriage felt like ownership. But by the time they were on their third child, Alfred managed to convince her. And why not? He already had the ring.

That was only a few years before his death. Fast-forward to 1970, and Doretha was faced with another compromise. Her birth control had failed. She was pregnant again, and Alfred was thrilled. 

"Not me," she said. "I could see myself being like my mother."

When she was at the hospital with child number four, Doretha decided to take drastic action. She requested a tubal ligation, to prevent her from ever having children again. 

But there was a catch: Back then, hospitals could refuse to perform the surgery without a husband's approval. And Alfred was not keen on the idea. But when he didn't budge, neither did she. She refused to leave her hospital bed. "When he saw I wasn't coming home, he signed," she says.

Less than two months later, Alfred would be dead. In the years that followed, she says she faced pressure to not remarry, to stay a living tribute to her late husband.

In some ways, she still plays that role, regularly sharing memories of Alfred with the public. But in telling and retelling the Highwaymen story, Doretha has started to question where she fits in. 

She claims she painted back then too. She says she helped Alfred with his work and produced 75 of her own canvases. And she wants recognition for it. But that's not a stance everyone has taken kindly to. 


The brand name "Highwaymen" turned out to be a stroke of marketing genius. "The thing took off like a comet," says Jim Fitch, the gallery owner credited with recognizing the artists' importance. 

Major news outlets rushed to profile these little-known Black artists. Their story was inspiring. It was dramatic, but more importantly, it was selling. 

But the attention came with a dark side. False stories were shared, some with racist overtones. Author Gary Monroe says the Highwaymen were sometimes depicted as thieves or assembly-line artists, not painters worthy of recognition.

"What I heard back then was that they painted with stolen materials they'd gotten from construction sites," Monroe says. "That's an eye-roller."

Then there was backlash from the artists themselves. Some felt their story had spiraled out of their control. They struggled with the identity imposed upon them. 

One artist told Fitch he felt misrepresented by being lumped in with painters he barely knew. Someone close to the artists complained that the name Highwaymen "reeked of pistols and daggers and skullduggery."

Since the painters never self-identified as a movement, it fell to outsiders to decide who should receive the label "Highwayman." In his research, Monroe faced the uneasy task of figuring out who qualified.

First, he set parameters. A true Highwayman had to be Black and self-taught, working in or around Fort Pierce in the 1950s, '60s, and '70s.

One litmus test he used was the artist's choice of material. A cheap construction material called Upson board had been popular alternative to canvas back then, before it was phased out in the 1980s. Monroe figured that if an artist could produce at least a half-dozen Upson-board landscapes, then that person was probably the real deal.

Twenty-six artists made the cut. Alfred, of course, was on the list. So was Al Black and Doretha's brother Pete. But not Doretha. The lone female Highwayman was a woman named Mary Ann Carroll. 


"Me, piggyback? I was working from the beginning," she says. "When I was married, I didn't give up 'me.'" 

That exclusion stung. But Doretha simply couldn't produce the evidence to prove her version of events. As she tells it, she painted to sell. She and Alfred shipped their work off so fast, the paint hadn't even dried yet. And over the decades, some Highwaymen art has been lost or destroyed.

While Doretha's sister Christine and her son Alfred Jr. confirm that she painted, other Highwaymen, including Mary Ann Carroll and Al Black, dispute her story. They do not consider her a Highwayman. Other key figures passed away before they could weigh in.

Doretha, meanwhile, rejects any insinuation that she's simply attempting to profit from Alfred's legacy. "Me, piggyback? I was working from the beginning," she says. "When I was married, I didn't give up 'me.'" 


Who owns the Highwaymen story? Doretha felt like it was her story too, but no one seemed to want to hear her. At least, not at first.

When Gary Monroe first started researching the Highwaymen, he says he came across other relatives of Alfred Hair, but not Doretha. Jon Ward, who led the grave restoration efforts, echoes that sentiment. They didn't know where she was or how to contact her. 

"Frankly I didn't know if she was alive," Ward said.

By the early 2000s, Doretha was working as a customer service manager in New Jersey. She had stopped painting and remarried. Fort Pierce was behind her. Or so she thought. Then the Highwaymen craze reached her ears.

"When you do this kind of work with communities, you need to do it with them, as opposed to for them," Ward says, reflecting on that call. "And this was a classic example of where we had thought about things without having their full involvement."

She was furious she had been bypassed and that her family's story was being told without her. So she picked up the telephone and explained her frustrations to Ward. 

"When you do this kind of work with communities, you need to do it with them, as opposed to for them," Ward says, reflecting on that call. "And this was a classic example of where we had thought about things without having their full involvement." 

Luckily, at that point, the grave restoration was only in the planning stages. Doretha was able to have her say. Now, if you stand at the foot of Alfred's grave, you see a shimmering sea of reds, blues and greens—the mosaic of a hibiscus flower, an image Doretha chose herself.

For decades, Doretha thought she would never move back to Fort Pierce. The hurt was too great, and Alfred's memory too powerful. It never occurred to her to pick up a paintbrush again, either.

"I could not," she says. "It was something we did together, and I just didn't want to think about his pain."

And yet, something about settling back into the house she and Alfred built together has changed things. 

"That's when I felt I could do it again. It's like he told me to do it," she says. It took her nearly 30 years to return to an artist's life, but as soon as she touched paint to canvas, the years seemed to slip away. 

Doretha looks at one of Alfred's paintings on the wall and smiles. "Even now, he paints with me," she says. That feeling gives her the strength to carry on his legacy and write her own.

Allison Griner

Allison Griner is a freelance journalist whose work has been featured in Al Jazeera, The Guardian, Narratively and Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting. She originally hails from Jacksonville, Florida.