Chicago photographer Helen Balfour Morrison became well-known in the 1930s and 1940s for a series of portraits of some of America’s most famous people. But she also made nearly 500 portraits of black, mostly poor people in Central Kentucky.
Those images from 1935, 1938 and 1946 are engaging, but Morrison was a better photographer than a reporter. She recorded few of her subjects’ names, or the places where she took their pictures.
Historians hope to solve some of these mysteries when the long-forgotten photographs go on display at the Thomas D. Clark Center for Kentucky History in Frankfort and the Lexington Public Library’s Northside Branch.
“We know there are people living who can identify these people and places,” said Jenny Lewis, the library branch manager. “That’s what we hope to do.”
“Photographing Freetowns: African American Kentucky through the Lens of Helen Balfour Morrison, 1935-1946,” an exhibit with 80 images, opens in Frankfort on Jan. 15 as part of the Kentucky Historical Society’s Martin Luther King Jr. holiday festivities. The exhibit will stay up through Oct. 20. The society has planned a series of programs to bring in families from those communities and genealogy groups to try to identify people and places in the pictures.
Lexington’s Northside library branch will exhibit 60 of the images during February. Before the Northside exhibit moves on to public libraries in Paris (March) and Georgetown (April), the branch also plans events to bring in people who might know details of the pictures. The library and historical society also plan events this year to encourage black families to bring in their own old photographs for scanning and sharing.
The African American Genealogy Group of Kentucky has organized most of its monthly meetings this year around the exhibit, said Sharyn Mitchell, a group leader and an archivist at Berea College. The group (Aaggky.org) hopes members can provide some information about the Morrison pictures and also gain a greater appreciation of using their own old photos to learn more about family history, she said.
Morrison was born in Evanston, Ill., in 1901 and ran a successful photographic studio with her brother, Malcolm. During the 1930s and 1940s, she made portraits of more than 40 “Great Americans” that were exhibited in Chicago, New York, Boston and other cities. Her subjects included poet Robert Frost, actress Helen Hayes, architect Frank Lloyd Wright and aviator Amelia Earhart.
From the mid-1940s until her death in 1984, Morrison’s career focused on photographing and filming modern dance pioneer Sybil Shearer. The women’s work is now preserved by the Morrison-Shearer Foundation in Northbrook, Ill.
Some of Morrison’s Kentucky photographs were exhibited in the 1930s and 1940s. Then they were largely forgotten until 2014, when the foundation reached out to Sarah Hoskins, a Chicago-based documentary photographer.
Until then, Hoskins had never heard of Morrison. But she also was born in Evanston and since 2000 has made frequent trips to Central Kentucky to photograph many of the same black communities Morrison visited decades earlier. Hoskins lectured on her project at the University of Kentucky in 2010, the same year it was featured by National Public Radio. (More info: Sarahhoskins.com.)
Hoskins thinks Morrison may have stumbled on her subject in 1935 while visiting friends in Kentucky. The black communities obviously intrigued her, because she returned at least twice more, in 1938 and 1946. The photographs were taken on horse farms and in Lexington, Midway and small communities established after the Civil War such as Zion Hill, Sugar Hill and Stringtown.
Morrison’s photos are mostly informal portraits taken outside or on porches. While they lack the intimacy and depth of Hoskins’ recent work, the pictures are a window into how many rural, black Kentuckians lived in that segregated era.
Last year, the Morrison-Shearer Foundation donated the collection to Chicago’s Newberry Library, which organized a show in Chicago, created an online presentation and made the Kentucky exhibits possible.
By that time, Hoskins had organized and scanned Morrison’s negatives and begun the process, which Mitchell and others have since contributed to, of trying to identify names and places in the pictures.
Hoskins said she brought prints with her to Kentucky in 2014 and showed them to community elders. “It was kind of crazy, Nancy Drew detective work,” she said.
Among those elders was Myrtle B. Hughes, a longtime Zion Hill resident who is now 88 and living with family in Alabama. Hoskins showed Hughes a big stack of images. The last one was of a 7-year-old girl leaning on a porch rail and looking at the photographer.
“I’ll never forget it,” Hoskins said. “Myrtle B. smiled and said, ‘That’s me!”