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


We may never know for certain why Helen Balfour Morrison (1900-1984), a white photographer from Chicago’s North Shore, traveled at least three times over a decade to Kentucky’s Inner Bluegrass region to photograph African Americans of the rural freetowns or hamlets surrounding Lexington. When she began her Kentucky work in the 1930s, Morrison had already started using her camera to create a series of artistic portraits called “Great Americans,” focused on artists, writers, and other prominent individuals.

In choosing to photograph “Sugar Hill and Stringtown,” as she termed her Kentucky series, it is unlikely that Helen Morrison intended to document black lives for social or political purposes in the manner of some New Deal photographers. She may simply have been practicing her skills and engaging in a common rite of passage for aspiring artists of the era. Like many photographers of her time, she may have aimed to romanticize life in the segregated South for northern audiences. A few of her photograph titles—Masters Got Company, Looking Over the Old Plantation, My Head is Bendin’ Low—suggest this possibility.

Morrison’s images show that she was an outsider in Kentucky. She took most of her photographs on porches or sidewalks, in barns or fields, but never inside African American homes. Still, she managed in her almost 500 photographs to create a compelling record of the daily lives of the men, women, and children of Zion Hill, Sugar Hill, and other Kentucky locations. Her images show people at home, in town, and at work – often in the kitchens, stables, and pastures of the region’s large thoroughbred horse farms. The pictures reveal the dignity, independence, and strength of these close-knit descendants of the ex-slaves who established communities here after the Civil War.

The Morrison-Shearer Foundation of Northbrook, Illinois, donated the Helen Balfour Morrison Photographs of Kentucky African American Communities, together with Morrison’s personal papers, to the Newberry in 2016. To view the entire collection, please visit Helen Morrison Photographs of Kentucky African Americans.

  1. Introduction
  2. Helen Balfour Morrison, Photographer
  3. Inner Bluegrass Kentucky
  4. Friends, Family, Photography
  5. African American Freetowns
  6. Sugar Hill
  7. Zion Hill
  8. Working Women
  9. Allie B. Clay
  10. Bluegrass Connections
  11. Working Men
  12. Bluegrass Horse Farms
  13. Postcards of the Kentucky Bluegrass
  14. In Town
  15. Urban Scenes
  16. Portraits of Age
  17. Portraits of Youth
  18. Sunday Best
  19. Exhibiting Kentucky in Chicago
  20. Acknowledgements
  21. Browse Images

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  1. Man (Bubba McIntyre?) standing outside barn in plaid shirt and hat, Vintage Print. Print 100, Negative 4-27, Box 1, Folder 7
  2. Young woman with young girl on porch, Vintage Print. Print 77, Box 2, Folder 85