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

Bluegrass Horse Farms

Before emancipation, slaves cared for, trained, and raced horses on the region's storied thoroughbred horse farms. Highly skilled black jockeys and trainers often commanded both status and a degree of freedom because they traveled and worked closely with white owners.

By the late 19th century, freed African American laborers – mostly men – dominated the industry as paid trainers, grooms, stable workers, and jockeys. Black jockeys rode 13 of 15 horses in the first Kentucky Derby in 1875 and piloted 15 of the first 28 Derby winners to victory. When racial segregation and discrimination intensified at the start of the 20th century, white owners pushed African Americans out of coveted jockey and trainer roles, restricting them to manual labor on their estates. Although reduced in status, black laborers continued to pass on their skills and knowledge about horse training and care to future generations.

Morrison took numerous photographs on or around Kentucky’s horse farms. Edward Bradley’s famous Idle Hour Farm, with its distinctive striped barrels and baskets, appears in many images. Morrison also visited and photographed Charles and Mary Fisher’s Dixiana Farm and Will Harbut, the groom for the celebrated 1920s racehorse Man O’War, at Faraway Farm.

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