Photographing Freetowns


Chicago-area photographer Helen Balfour Morrison is largely unknown today, but she created an impressive body of photographs documenting African American life in Depression-era Kentucky. Beginning in 1935, Morrison traveled to the Inner Bluegrass region near Lexington, Kentucky, where she photographed the residents of two small African American communities, Zion Hill and Sugar Hill.

Her images reveal the dignity, independence, and strength of the close-knit descendants of the freedmen who settled these Kentucky hamlets in the decades following the Civil War. Morrison’s photographs chart the daily lives of these individuals, picturing their work, domestic rituals, and social life. The photographs preserve this proud legacy for future generations and invite further investigation and understanding of the experiences of African Americans in these communities and others during the first half of the twentieth century.

The exhibition will feature nearly 80 of Morrison’s original prints, together with contextual materials from the Newberry’s collections. Also on view will be Morrison’s original home movie of her 1935 trip, plus a slideshow of all of her almost 500 Kentucky images.

View the digital collection of Morrison's Kentucky photographs, and explore related materials in the Newberry collection.

Free Curator-Led Tours

  • Saturday, January 21, 1:15 pm
  • Thursday, February 23, 5:30 pm
  • Thursday, March 30, 5:30 pm

Meet in the lobby five minutes before the tour time; no registration required.

Photographing Freetowns is sponsored by the Morrison-Shearer Foundation, Joan and Robert Feitler, and the Rosaline G. Cohn Endowment for Exhibitions.

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