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Helen Balfour Morrison photographs of Kentucky African American communities

Identifier: Midwest-MS-Morrison-KY

Scope and Content of the Collection

Prints created by Helen Balfour Morrison from the negative films she took during at least three trips to Kentucky in 1935, 1938, and 1946. The majority of the photographs were taken around the communities of Sugar Hill and Zion Hill, both historically black communities known as hamlets or freetowns, founded after the Civil War. Other locations identified include Midway, Pleasant Hill, Shaker Village, Frankfort, and Louisville. Ten of the original prints were used for an exhibition of Morrison’s work at the O’Brien Gallery in Chicago in 1936. Morrison referred to the photographs as the "Sugar Hill and String Town" collection. Contains negatives in both 35 mm safety film and 4-by-5 inch nitrate formats. Also includes print outs of the negatives and some research information about her subjects.


  • Creation: 1935-1946



Materials are in English.

Conditions Governing Access

The Helen Balfour Morrison photographs of Kentucky African American communities are open for research in the Special Collections Reading Room; 1 box at a time (Priority III).

Ownership and Literary Rights

The Helen Balfour Morrison photographs of Kentucky African American communities are the physical property of the Newberry Library. Copyright may belong to the authors or their legal heirs or assigns. For permission to publish or reproduce any materials from this collection, contact the Roger and Julie Baskes Department of Special Collections at

Biography of Helen Balfour Morrison

American photographer and artist.

Helen Balfour was born in Evanston, Illinois on August 1, 1900 or 1901 to Fannie Lindley and Alexander Balfour. In her later teenage years, Helen took a job in a photography studio to help support the family after the death of her mother. At this studio she learned to use the portrait camera and helped expand the studio's business with creative ideas of her own. In the 1920s, Helen and her brother Malcolm (“Mac”) started their own commercial photography business in Evanston. She married Robert Bruce Morrison (March 5, 1902 – June 19, 1966), a publishing executive, in 1925 or 1926.

During the 1930s and 1940s, Morrison undertook several photography projects. She is known for her “Great Americans” or “Notable Americans” series, photographing some 200 people, among them Robert Frost, Helen Hayes, Nelson Algren, Frank Lloyd Wright, Alice B. Toklas and Gertrude Stein, Mies van der Rohe, Amelia Earhart, and Jane Addams. During the same time period, Morrison created a series of documentary and artistic photographs of African American communities in Kentucky.

In 1943 she became lighting director and artistic collaborator with modern dancer Sybil Shearer and by the mid-1950s was photographer Shearer exclusively. Her collaboration with Shearer produced a large collection of extraordinary dance photographs and films, as well as an intense and sensitive documentation of Shearer’s life. Their artistic and personal collaborations continued until Helen’s death on November 6, 1984.


5.2 Linear Feet (3 boxes and 2 oversize boxes)


Prints and negatives by Helen Balfour Morrison from her multiple trips to African American communities in Kentucky during the 1930s and 1940s.


Papers are organized in the following series:

Series 1: Helen Balfour Morrison Prints, 1935-1946
Boxes 1-2 (oversize)
Series 2: Helen Balfour Morrison Negatives, 1935-1946
Boxes 3-4
Series 3: Helen Balfour Morrison Negative Print Outs and Research Information
Box 5

Collection Stack Location

1 38 1, 1 43 2


Gift, Morrison-Shearer Foundation, 2016.

Processed by

Martha Briggs and Catherine Grandgeorge, 2016.

Inventory of the Helen Balfour Morrison photographs of Kentucky African American communities, 1935-1946
Martha Briggs and Catherine Grandgeorge
Language of description
Script of description

Repository Details

Part of the The Newberry Library - Modern Manuscripts and Archives Repository

60 West Walton Street
Chicago Illinois 60610 United States