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

Working Men

Well into the 20th century, racial prejudice, segregation, and rural isolation limited occupational opportunities for African American men. As paid employees, their jobs followed patterns established during slavery: they worked mainly as farm laborers on large estates, but also held positions as service workers or as laborers in other industries.

The 1940 Census for Zion Hill listed 27 employed male residents. Of these, 15 men reported that they did farm labor (some on “racehorse farms”) and 4 more worked on farms in other capacities, including cook, butler, handyman, and housekeeper. There were also 3 public works employees, 2 tenant farmers, a flour mill helper, a farm truck driver, and a paper hanger. Salaries in general were low, compounded by the fact that many farm laborers worked only seasonally. Part-time workers brought home a fraction of the $600 yearly incomes reported by full-time horse farm laborers and house servants. A public works stone mason earned the most ($900) of all Zion Hill residents.

Like African American women, the men traveled to day jobs, but returned home in the evening to their families, homes, and daily chores. Often owning small plots of land, families had opportunities to supplement wages with their own agricultural endeavors. Men raised burley tobacco and other cash crops, and cultivated gardens and raised chickens and pigs for family consumption.

Helen Morrison’s pictures chronicle these patterns of life. They show men at work, in transit, and at rest – laboring in the fields, maintaining their properties, relaxing after a long day’s work, and heading home.

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