Mary Ann Carroll, the only female member of Florida’s original Highwaymen artists, passed away in December
FORT PIERCE – The community of Fort Pierce lost a piece of its soul Dec. 4 with the death of Mary Ann Carroll, the beloved area pastor and only female member of the original Florida Highwaymen artistic movement that evolved during the middle of the last century.
Hundreds of people packed the sanctuary of St. Mark’s Missionary Baptist on Orange Avenue Dec. 14 to say goodbye to the self-titled “Queen of the Road” who joined the fledgling group of African American painters in the mid-1950s selling their Florida landscapes along U.S. 1 and other highways because they were racially excluded at the time from South Florida art galleries. One of her daughters, educational administrator and teacher Wanda Renee Mills of Sanford, said she tried to keep her mother’s funeral service simple because the late artist believed people should get flowers while they were still alive and not after they died. She found those wishes clashed, however, with the desire of some of Mrs. Carroll’s grandchildren to send their grandmother off in a horse-drawn carriage, but Dr. Mills ultimately acquiesced. After the church service concluded, the pallbearers loaded her coffin into an enchanting white carriage for a fairy-tale ending through the streets of Fort Pierce en route to Pine Grove Cemetery where she was buried near some of her fellow Highwaymen along the Florida Highwaymen Heritage Trail.
“It was so noble to see her coffin in that carriage,” she said. “As we were going down the street, people were coming out taking pictures, and I don’t know if mother would have been pleased or annoyed. It’s still surreal to me, but it was an appropriate home-going for a queen.”
As she reminisced on her mother’s artistic career, Dr. Mills described the moment when her mother had a chance run-in with Harold Newton, who not long before had been convinced by Fort Pierce artist A. E. Backus to switch his artistic bent from religious scenes to Florida landscapes. Mr. Backus had taken another African-American artist under his wing at about the same time, 14-year-old Alfred Hair, and soon the two young African-American painters would become the first Florida Highwaymen, selling their tropical landscape paintings along South Florida Highways.
“My mother had her own car since she was about 15 years old, and she drove by and saw Harold Newton’s car with flames painted on the side,” Dr, Mills said. “He explained that he had painted the flames himself, and she asked him if he could teach her to paint flames on her car. He then taught her how to mix the colors, and it was off to the races.”
Affectionately referred to as her mother’s “knee baby” because she was the sixth of seven children, Dr. Mills grew up helping her uncle run a combination record store, pool hall and art gallery while her mother busily painted landscapes in the rear studio to sell. Although Mrs. Carroll held a variety of odd jobs throughout the years to help make ends meet, she always relied on her artistic creations for the lion’s share of her income.
“She was always an artist to me, and she was always in the back painting,” Dr. Mills said. “Her brother and the other children and I would run the gallery. I have many memories of my uncle working the floor and the pool tables, while I sat at the register. The paintings were a fun hustle for her… and sustained her a lot more and longer than many realize. It was always her primary job.”
Mrs. Carroll traced her initial encounter with God to an early tent revival service as a child, and in her later years took on the role of pastor, first at the Piney Grove Primitive Baptist Church of Christ and later founding the Foundation Revival Center Church of Redemption in 1995. Her goals were to help those down on their luck or recently released from prison get back on their feet but even prior to that, she was sharing her testimony through Gospel music.
“One of my earliest memories of my mother was when I was about three years old because mother and dad were gathering last minute musical supplies to drive to Miami and perform in a Gospel program,” Dr. Mills said. “My baby sister Tarsha was sitting on the table with tears in her eyes, and I remember trying to console her.”
For the next decade or so, Mrs. Carroll joining the growing group of Highwaymen artists running the roads from Miami to Jacksonville peddling their artistic wares. After Highwayman Hair was killed in barroom brawl in 1970 at age 29, the Highwaymen art form began slowly slipping into obscurity until a series of newspaper articles published in the St. Petersburg Times and a subsequent article in the New York Times brought it back into the limelight. The 2004 induction of Mrs. Carroll and 25 other Highwaymen into the Florida Artists Hall of Fame contributed to a revival of interest and spike in prices for the now highly coveted paintings. In 2011, then First-Lady Michelle Obama invited the lone Highwaywoman to be the honored guest at her annual First Lady’s Luncheon in Washington D.C. where the former received one of the latter’s paintings as a gift. Last February, Florida’s First Lady Casey DeSantis named Ms. Carroll as the state’s featured artist during Black History Month and displayed her work in the governor’s mansion in Tallahassee.
The renewed interest in the art form also helped lead to the growth of a second generation of Highwaymen, such as A.J. Brown, who cut her artistic teeth under the tutelage of two original Highwaymen, James Gibson and Johnny Daniels. The only other female Highwayman to-date, Ms. Brown said an uncle who was a friend of the Highwaymen and collected their work introduced her to Mr. Gibson in 2005. After studying with him for two years, she began painting with Mr. Daniels in 2007. Mrs. Carroll happened to walk into his studio one day during a painting lesson, and the first- and second-generation Highwaywomen bonded quickly.
“I just got the feeling that she had come to see me, because there was a talk around time that there was another lady painting, and we hit it off,” she said. “In 2009, the Highwaymen got together to form a 501c3 and the most senior ones elected Mrs. Mary Ann Carroll as the president, and I was elected secretary. We spent a lot of time together, and those are the ones I remember.”
Over the next several years, the two female Highwaymen worked closely together on several projects, including The Highwaymen Obelisk in the middle of the roundabout on Avenue D in Fort Pierce.
“I viewed her as the original first lady – the generation before me – which I highly respected,” she said. “I was honored to work beside her and with her. She showed me what could be done, but at the same time, she considered herself the original and called herself Queen of the Road, and that she was.”
Dr. Mills confirmed her mother’s comradery with her fellow Highwayman.
“Mother loved everyone,” she exclaimed. “Her Highwaymen colleagues were her little sorority/fraternity. She never thought about accepting any story or movie that did not include the group collectively.”
Ms. Brown insisted she felt honored to belong to such a legendary group whose original members had accepted Mrs. Carroll decades ago as simply one of the gang.
“It’s iconic to be a part of and carry on for such a tremendous group of artists,” she explained. “What makes it so cool is that the original generation also started out as friends and family and so did the second generation, so everyone is not blood-related. The group that Johnny Daniels taught are not actually blood-related, but he left his legacy with four men and myself. I feel blessed to be a part of it, to have lived in their time and to have walked with legends of the road.”
As far as her now being the only remaining Highwaywoman, Ms. Brown said she’s still adjusting to that idea.
“The loss of the first and original Highwaywoman, Mary Ann Carroll, was inevitable, yet still unbelievable,” she said. “She will truly be missed.”