Fifty years ago today, A Raisin in the Sun debuted, eventually becoming American theater’s seminal statement on racism and the human condition. Named after words from a Langston Hughes poem, the play was made into a critically acclaimed film in 1961 and was later translated into 35 languages. The play was “a breakthrough for white America” and “a curtain raiser for the next phase of the civil rights movement,” Hansberry’s biographer, Michael Anderson, told me in an e-mail recently.
The play told the story of the Youngers, a black family seeking to escape the crowded slums of Chicago’s South Side by buying a home in a white neighborhood. The play tracks their inner struggles and collective triumphs, which echoed the plight of blacks flooding into Northern cities like Chicago and Detroit seeking their fair share of America and giving birth to the black middle class.
But even as the play continues to grow in stature, many Americans are unaware of the courageous story behind the art. Just like Pablo Picasso was moved to paint his classic mural-sized painting “Guernica” after the Nazis savagely bombed the city of Guernica in Spain in 1937, Lorraine Hansberry penned A Raisin in the Sun because of real events, violent and noble.
The true story that inspired the play occurred in 1937 when Lorraine Hansberry’s father, the successful Chicago businessman Carl Hansberry, purchased a house restricted to whites by racial covenant in Chicago. When the family ignored the 1928 covenant that excluded blacks and bought a house there, the Hansberrys were thrust, the playwright said later, into a “hellishly hostile ‘white neighborhood’” where “howling mobs surrounded” their home. Hansberry was nearly killed when a cement slab was hurled through a window.
Conditions were so dangerous that Hansberry’s mother, Nannie Perry Hansberry, patrolled the house at night with a “German luger” to protect her four children. Carl Hansberry joined forces with the NAACP to mount a legal challenge against the restrictive racial covenant, spending a small fortune in the process.
A white homeowner, Anna M. Lee, complained that the Hansberrys violated the covenant. The case, known today as Hansberry v. Lee, weaved its way through the judicial system and eventually landed at the United States Supreme Court for review. Chicago alderman Earl Dickerson, a Chicago legal legend, along with a litany of outstanding black civil rights lawyers, represented the Hansberry family. The case is critically important to history for one specific reason: 14 years earlier, in 1926, the U.S. Supreme Court declared racial covenants legal in Corrigan v. Buckley. The Hansberry case offered a chance to reverse that decision.
In the end, Carl Hansberry’s persistence and courage paid off. On Nov. 12, 1940, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of Hansberry, invalidating the racial covenant.
While the decision was decided on technical grounds and took no position on the legality of all racial covenants, the case proved to be the beginning of the end for the practice. Some other racially restricted areas in Chicago opened up to black homebuyers. Then, in 1948, the Supreme Court declared the enforcement of all racial covenants unconstitutional in the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case, Shelley v. Kraemer.
Sadly, however, according to Lorraine Hansberry, her father’s battle for justice led to an early death. Mr. Hansberry died in 1946 of a cerebral hemorrhage in Mexico. He was considering moving his family there as a result of the legal battle to take the home. In To Be Young, Gifted and Black, Hansberry described “the emotional turmoil” of the struggle which left him an “embittered exile in a foreign land…”
The monument of the spirit of Carl Hansberry, his daughter Lorraine and the entire Hansberry family is A Raisin in the Sun, an enduring piece of art whose back story is especially important today as black communities face new and often difficult housing issues as neighborhoods gentrify or deteriorate. And whole generations of black wealth are going up in smoke because of the subprime mortgage crisis.
Hansberry’s play is about determination, the human spirit and a willingness to be courageous as we try to make ourselves at home in a sometimes hostile land.
Brian Gilmore is an attorney and writer in Washington, D.C.