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

Portraits of Youth

Helen Morrison took engaging photographs of children in the freetowns of Zion Hill and Sugar Hill, and in the cities of Lexington and Louisville. She portrayed some of the young people alone or with their peers, but often captured them with adults of all ages. Reminiscing about his native Zion Hill, Isaac Hughes noted that, “It was one of those kind of communities that as a child growing up, other people made sure you stayed in line. Growing up around elderly people, you had to respect them.” (Youngs, Jenna. "Life in Peace at Zion Hill." Lexington Herald-Leader., 13 Aug. 2008).

Zion Hill and Sugar Hill youngsters attended segregated schools, including the one-room Rosenwald School in Zion Hill completed in 1929 at a cost of $3,200. A collaboration between African American educator Booker T. Washington and Chicago business man and philanthropist Julius Rosenwald, the Rosenwald school-building program attempted to improve African American educational opportunities. With local community participation, the program constructed numerous schools throughout the South including more than 155 in Kentucky.

In 1940 all of Zion Hill’s children of elementary age and most of its high school age children attended class. This was a departure from previous generations, when it was rare for children to reach the secondary level, let alone graduate. Whether this pattern continued after 1945, when the Rosenwald School’s closing forced children to travel to more distant consolidated schools, is unknown.

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