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

Inner Bluegrass Kentucky

By the mid-1800s, an industry focused on horse breeding and racing, and supported by slave labor, developed in Kentucky’s Inner Bluegrass region surrounding Lexington. After emancipation, free African American men and women continued to find paid work on the horse farms that dotted the landscape. No longer compelled to live in quarters provided by their former owners, ex-slaves formed their own independent communities nestled among the horse farm fields and hills. The settlements, often called freetowns or hamlets, were well-established by the 1880s and became home to successive generations of black families into the 20th century.

Helen Morrison visited the region with her camera in 1935, 1938, and 1946 to photograph African Americans on the horse farms and in the freetowns. On her first trip, Morrison traveled with Carol Lou Burnham, an artist friend from Winnetka who had previously introduced her to Jens Jensen. Burnham and Morrison may have shared an interest in the horse country: Burnham because of her desire to paint landscapes and Morrison because she wished to practice her portrait skills.

Very little is known about the second visit in 1938, except that Morrison took her photographs of Lexington that year. By 1946, she was well into what would become a 40-year friendship and collaboration with the modern dancer Sybil Shearer. Shearer joined Morrison that year on her final Kentucky excursion and appears in a few images taken during the trip.

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  1. “Blue Grass Horse Farms,” in Map of Lexington and the Blue Grass, Washington D.C.: American Automobile Association, 1960. Tom Rice Map Collection, Box 86