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

Working Women

Limited by patterns established in slavery, most Kentucky African American women worked as domestic servants into the 20th century. They found low-wage jobs as cooks, nurses, servants, and laundresses to support themselves and contribute essential income to the family purse. Black women worked outside the home for most of their lives, starting as early as 10 years old and continuing through middle and sometimes old age, even when they had children of their own.

After emancipation, African American women chose to live away from their jobs and to travel daily to work. This arrangement allowed them to take care of their families' needs and participate in their own community, especially the church. In the freetowns, neighbors, older children, and elderly relations often watched over young children.

Often a girl's first job was to care for the children of white families. Ada D. Blair, who lived in Sugar Hill with her family, worked for Whitney and Lady Louise Dunlap on their nearby farm, taking care of their daughter, Lucy, and adopted nephew, Whitney. Ada Blair is listed twice in the 1940 Census – with her family in Sugar Hill and with the nearby Dunlap family household – indicating that she divided her time between the two residences.

Taking in laundry offered more independence than other domestic occupations. Washerwomen could work from home, washing and drying clothes in their own backyards. In 1940, Fannie Lewis was a 74-year-old widow who owned her own home in Zion Hill. She lived alone and supported herself with home laundry work following the death of her husband, John Lewis, sometime between 1920 and 1930.

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  1. Ada B. Blair with two children, Lucy Cross Dunlap and Whitney Dunlap II in buggy, Digital reproduction from negative. Negative 9-17, Box 3, Folder 95
  2. Fannie Lewis, with laundry hanging to dry, in yard of her Zion Hill home, Vintage Print. Print 104, Negative 4-22, Box 1, Folder 6
  3. Woman wearing headscarf and apron standing on porch, Vintage Print. Print 7, Negative 17-08, Box 1, Folder 13
  4. Two women doing laundry on porch, Vintage Print. Print 14, Negative 13-07, Box 1, Folder 15
  5. Woman hanging laundry on line, Vintage Print. Print 91, Negative 520, Box 2, Folder 62