Photographing Freetowns: African American Kentucky Through the Lens of Helen Balfour Morrison, 1935-1946

African American Freetowns

At least 30 rural African American freetowns lie nestled among the famous horse farms that ring the city of Lexington. Among the better known are Bracktown, Cadentown, Coletown, Fort Spring, Frogtown, Jimtown, Jonestown, Keene, Maddoxtown, New Zion, Pricetown, Uttingertown, and Zion Hill. Freedmen and freedwomen established the hamlets soon after the Civil War, on land they purchased or were given by white farm and estate owners who wanted to attract a paid labor force.

The history of the freetowns offers testimony to the resilience and accomplishments of the residents, as well as to the limitations imposed on them in a segregated post-war society. Restricted by low pay, limited job and educational opportunities, and rural isolation, freetown residents created self-sufficient and independent communities. Most built their own homes and grew cash crops and food on their own acreage while working for wages on nearby estates. They established their own churches and schools, creating institutions that became centers of their close-knit communities. For African Americans in Kentucky, the freetowns were a way of life that persisted for generations.

Today many of the freetowns are shrinking or have disappeared, due to Lexington’s suburban sprawl and the lure of increased opportunities elsewhere. Memories of a proud past live on in the minds of older residents who still remain, in the churches and neighborhood organizations that continue to draw former residents back to their old communities, and in the efforts of local preservationists and historians.
 

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  1. “African American Freetowns.” Adapted from map in: Smith, Peter C., and Karl B. Raitz. "Negro Hamlets and Agricultural Estates in Kentucky's Inner Bluegrass." Geographical Review 64, no. 2 (1974): p. 219 Designed by M. N. Kennedy