Fort Pierce: Florida's Cultural Heritage Vacation Destination

Black travel continues to be on the rise.  As our affluence grows, our tourist dollars have followed. Black travelers spend an average of $48 billion per year on U.S. travel alone.  According to a study released by Mandala Research, locations rich in cultural heritage are choice for domestic destinations.  As a community, preference is given where our buying power is respected and our stories are beheld.  While Savannah, Baltimore, and South Carolina continue to rank among premier black history travel destinations, Fort Pierce, Fla. is arguably one of the nation’s best-kept secrets in this regard.

Positioned about 120 miles equidistant between family-friendly Orlando and tropical Miami, Fort Pierce makes for the perfect road trip destination to get the best bang for your Florida vacation buck.  With its quaint small-town feel, beautiful beaches and subtropical climate, the Sunrise City is in the middle of everything and away from it all. The downtown Main Street, featuring a charming farmer’s market, art galleries and sumptuous seafood restaurants, was recently ranked No. 1 on the list of “50 Best Small Town Main Streets” in America according to the National Trust for Historic Preservation. “We think Fort Pierce is on the verge of being discovered,” says Mayor Linda Hudson.  Having spent three full days on a historical tour of the coastal Florida city, I absolutely agree.  Aside from its relaxing aesthetic, Fort Pierce has a treasure trove of uncharted African-American landmarks and here are just a few.

The Zora Neale Hurston Dust Tracks Heritage Trail

Harlem Renaissance pioneer, great American novelist and acclaimed author of Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neale Hurston (1891 – 1960), was a resident of Fort Pierce. The Zora Neale Hurston Dust Tracks Heritage Trail chronicles the final years of her life in an eight-point tour. Highlights include a drive-by to Lincoln Park Academy, the segregated school where Ms. Hurston taught and was known by her students as an eccentric and colorful character. A walk through the modest home of Hurston offers a revealing glimpse at her simplistic lifestyle and unmitigated focus on her craft. Also encompassed in the tour is the gravesite where her headstone, purchased by Alice Walker (famed author of The Color Purple) memorializes, “Zora Neale Hurston: A Genius of the South.”  

Perhaps the most significant part of this fascinating and educational tour is the fact that it is curated entirely by locals, most of whom knew Hurston personally.  Their encounters with her as students, neighbors and community members offer a unique and intimate insight into the passion and personality of the legendary writer.

To read more about  Hurston’s time here, enjoy my article, “The Legacy of Zora Neale Hurston in Fort Pierce, Florida.”

The Highwaymen Heritage Trail

In the 1950’s, a young African American man from Fort Pierce abandoned all social norms by exchanging the arduous manual labor of citrus harvesting for a paint brush and canvas. Alfred Hair’s raw talent caught the eye of his high school art teacher, Zanobia Jefferson, who introduced him to A.E. “Beanie” Backus, the famous local artist and humanitarian who became his instructor and mentor. Having mastered his craft, Hair was determined to make a living selling the vivid and exuberant Florida landscapes he loved creating.

His limited financial resources necessitated his use of cheap construction scrap material called Upson board for canvas. He used crown molding for his frames. These foundational materials became the signature trademark of Highwaymen art.  The laws in the Jim Crow Era South denied him entry into art galleries, so in a shrewd business move, Hair went about selling paintings out of the trunk of his car to local businesses, hotels, and tourists.  As demand for his work grew, Hair taught a host of friends and associates how to paint landscapes and create frames to mass produce paintings that would sell for $20-$25.  This lucrative business would lay the foundation of success that would go on to employ 26 highwaymen artists and four full-time salespeople. Today, these paintings sell for thousands of dollars and are collected by Steven Spielberg, Michelle Obama, Jeb Bush, Shaquille O’Neal and a number of private collectors.

The Highwaymen Heritage Trail is a self-guided tour of 10 landmarks commemorating the trajectory and historic landmarks of the young, talented and enterprising architects of this unique operation.

So you see, in addition to its idyllic location and tropical climate, Fort Pierce is home to a rich legacy of great American innovators in art and literature, making the Florida Atlantic Coast city the perfect destination for your next historic getaway.

For more information about Fort Pierce to plan your historical trip, visit www.visitflorida.com/en-us/cities/fort-pierce.html.  You can also visit www.visitstlucie.com for information about other great destinations in St. Lucie County as well as follow them on Twitter, Facebook and  Instagram.

Photo credit: St. Lucie County Tourism

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Ebony is a media consultant, editor, and writer for online magazines such as Cuisine Noir, Blavity, and Teen Vogue. She's a museum connoisseuring, hostel loving, wanderlust junkie who lives for new travel experiences. Learn more about her work at naomiteneaustin.com.