“I was born on the Southside of Chicago. I was born black and a female. I was born in a depression after one world war and came into adolescence during another.” (Hansberry). This quote from Lorraine Hansberry is taken from a speech she presented at the American Society of African Culture, a conference for Black writers.
This quote highlights the struggles of her growing up, as she was born in a time period where the United States was facing multiple hardships. The United States was recovering from a World War, living through a Great Depression, and preparing for another war. Moreover, being born Black and female comes with it’s own oppressive qualities.
Hansberry was a writer, and was the first Black female playwright to have a play performed on Broadway. Lorraine Hansberry’s legacy as a writer can be analyzed through her early life experiences, her works, and her impact on society during the civil rights movement.
Lorraine Vivian Hansberry, daughter of Nannie Perry Hansberry and Carl Augustus Hansberry, was born during the Great Depression on May 19, 1930 at Provident Hospital. Which resides in the South Side of Chicago, Illinois, an area that is heavily segregated by race. Hansberry was the youngest child out of her four other siblings. Though her family was middle class, they were still subject to segregation.
At 8 years old, Lorraine’s father made the attempt of moving into an all white neighborhood, which was considered a restricted neighborhood. “Restrictive covenants, in which white property owners agreed not to sell to blacks, created a ghetto known as the “Black Belt” on Chicago’s South Side.” (McKissak 2). This led to Lorraine’s father, Carl, with the help of the president of the Supreme Liberty Life Insurance Company, Harry Pace to secretly purchase a property in the area.
The Hansberry’s faced much discrimination upon moving. This purchase enraged the white residents as they formed mobs and threatened the family with vandalism and contracts. The Illinois Supreme Court upheld the legality of the restrictive covenant, which thus forced the Hansberry’s to move. In partnership with the NAACP, Carl Hansberry filed a lawsuit against the settlement as it violated the Civil Rights Act that was passed in 1866.
In Hansberry v. Lee, The United States Supreme Court reversed the decision in favor of Carl, which initiated the end of restrictive covenants across the country and opened new properties for African American families in the South Side of Chicago. Growing up, numerous of famous black political and social leaders visited the Hansberry household. A few of the notable activists that attended are sociologist and historian W.E.B. DuBois, Olympic medalist Jesse Owens, poet Langston Hughes, and actor Paul Robeson. These mentors had a prominent influence on Lorraine’s political views.
After graduating high school in the late 1940’s, Lorraine attended the University of Wisconsin for 2 years. During those years, she partook in many organizations such as the Young Progressives of America and the Labor Youth League. These institutions advocated for world peace and racial equality, as well as worked in hopes of ending the Cold War.
She left the University before completing her degree, and studied painting in Chicago and Mexico. After her studies, in 1950 she moved to New York to pursue a career as a writer. Hansberry studied at the New School for Social Research and the Jefferson School of Social Science, which was a school established by the Communist Party USA. At Jefferson School, She took seminars relating to African affairs and history which enhanced her knowledge of Africa’s culture and struggles against colonialism, which were taught by W.E.B.
DuBois. Hansberry was then given the opportunity to work alongside Paul Robeson and his Freedom newspaper, a publication that was heavily influenced by socialist ideals, that Lorraine thought would become “the journal of Negro liberation.” (Ibid 53). Starting as a secretary, she was quickly promoted to associate editor. “Hansberry was ‘regularly in contact with Robeson and DuBois and used the opportunity to expand her understanding of race, politics, and culture.
She authored several articles for Freedom.’” (Azikiwe 9). In the articles Lorraine composed, she tackled topics regarding victories won by independent countries against Europe, the political economy in ghettos, and institutions that uphold racism. Additionally, Lorraine resorted to the publications as a way to defend her colleagues against attacks made by the anti-communist Senator Joe McCarthy and the FBI made. Along with working for the newspaper, Lorraine also worked as a part-time waitress and cashier.
Ultimately, Jefferson School was forced to shut down at the height of the McCarthy Era in 1956. In 1953, Hansberry met Robert B. Nemiroff, a Jewish songwriter and theater producer, who shares the same political ideals as her during a protest against racial discrimination. They eventually got married at the Hansberry household on June 20, 1953. In 1956, Nemiroff and Burt D’Lugoff wrote the song, “Cindy, Oh Cindy.” The song was very successful as it sold millions, appeared on the Top 40 charts. This profitable song, granted Hansberry the ability to commit into writing full-time.