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

Bluegrass Connections

On her trips to Kentucky, Helen Morrison visited two women who owned or operated large horse farms in the region: Laura S. Estill Williams, of Silver Pool Farm off Payne’s Mill Road and Williams Lane, and Mary Virginia Fisher, of Dixiana Farms north of Lexington. We can only speculate about how Morrison knew both women. She photographed Williams and Fisher, and they seem to have introduced her to the African American employees working in the kitchens and on the grounds of their farms.

As the link between Helen Morrison and Allie B. Clay, Laura S. Estill Williams was crucial to Morrison’s efforts to photograph freetown residents. From an old Kentucky family, Williams (1879-1963) operated the Silver Pool Farm following the 1934 death of her husband, Claude S. Williams. In 1935 Morrison and Carol Lou Burnham visited Williams and may have stayed on the farm. When Morrison returned again in 1946 with Sybil Shearer, she photographed Williams. It is possible that Morrison may have known Williams through Carol Lou Burnham and Burnham family connections.

Mary Virginia Fisher (1913-2000) was an accomplished horsewoman and breeder of thoroughbreds and saddlebreds. She was the daughter of Charles T. Fisher, a Detroit industrialist who purchased Dixiana Farms in 1928, the same year he sold his Fisher Body Company to General Motors. In 1929, Morrison’s friend and mentor Jens Jensen drafted landscape plans for Dixiana Farms. He probably provided Morrison’s introduction to Mary Fisher in 1946.

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  1. Laura S. Estill Williams (Mrs. Claude Williams), Vintage Print. Print 38, Negative 2-15, Box 1, Folder 1
  2. “Kentucky Blue Grass Region” in 1935 Standard Oil Road Map Kentucky and Tennessee, New York: General Drafting Company, 1935. General Drafting Company Records, Legal Files
  3. Mary Virginia Fisher in front of barn at Dixiana Farms, Digital reproduction from negative. Negative 2-29, Box 3, Folder 88