Lorraine Hansberry
(Glasshouse Images/Shutterstock)

Black History Trailblazers of the 1950s: Lorraine Hansberry, The Playwright

In our ongoing celebration of Black History Month, we look back at some of the leaders, icons, and pop culture juggernauts that helped to bring diversity, equity, inclusion and representation to the forefront of the American landscape — like these men and women who left their indelible mark on the 1950s.

With her play A Raisin in the Sun, Lorraine Hansberry became the first-ever Black female author to write a play performed on Broadway. It was just one in several amazing achievements for the liberated wordsmith whose all too short life helped bring to light a number of once closeted subjects.

Born to a middle-class family living in Chicago in 1930, Lorraine Hansberry experienced both the good and the bad from an early age. Her father, Carl Augustus Hansberry, was a successful businessman. He founded Lake Street Bank, one of the first banks for Blacks in Chicago. He also ran a profitable real estate business. Because of his connections, Hansberry was able to interact with many prominent Black leaders throughout her childhood — folks like famed sociology professor W.E.B. DuBois, poet Langston Hughes, actor and political activist Paul Robeson, musician Duke Ellington and Olympic gold medalist Jesse Owens.

However, Hansberry and her family were also subjected to 1950s-era segregation and the systemic racism that came with it — including laws that limited the parts of town where Black families could live and buy homes.

Eager to overcome those restrictive policies, Hansberry’s father worked with a group of white friends and allies to secretly buy a home in a white neighborhood where Blacks were not allowed to own property. Once he had the title for the house, he and his family moved in, but whites in the area immediately threatened them. While police and lower courts sided with existing law saying the family couldn’t live in the home they’d bought, when the case made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court, the country’s nine justices felt otherwise, ruling that the family could stay — and helping to bring an end to racially restricted neighborhoods in the Windy City.

It was these early childhood memories — the good and the bad; fighting for change and fighting for what you know is right while also feeling hated and threatened by those around you — that Hansberry took with her as she grew up, graduated from college, and ultimately moved to New York to become a writer.

Her first job in NYC was with actor and activist Paul Robeson’s progressive publication “Freedom.” There, she fell in with other politically active voices, including Robert Nemiroff, a Jewish writer who not only shared her political views but would also ultimately become her husband. A successful songwriter on the side — he penned hits for Eddie Fisher and others — their marriage meant that Hansberry was free to quit her job and focus entirely on writing. 

Drawing inspiration from her childhood hero Langston Hughes, she began detailing the lives of working-class Black people on Chicago’s South Side in her work — many modeled after her own friends and family while she was growing up. Originally titled The Crystal Stair, she ultimately decided to take a line from Hughes’ poem “Harlem: A Dream Deferred” and changed her play’s name to A Raisin in the Sun.

An overnight success once it finally made its debut, the play ran continuously for more than 500 performances and won a slew of accolades, including four Tony Awards nominations and a New York Drama Critics Circle Award. When Hollywood expressed interest in turning the play into a movie, Hansberry wrote the screenplay, and Sidney Poitier and Claudia McNeil reprised their roles on the stage for the film. The play has since been performed countless times in dozens of different languages and is so well regarded that in 1983, respected New York Times’ theater critic Frank Rich wrote that A Raisin in the Sun “changed American theater forever.”

While Hansberry never achieved the same level of success with her subsequent work, she continued to write vociferously. The 2013 release of many of her unpublished journals and letters revealed she was a member of the LGBTQ community and often wrote privately about the challenges of intersectionality and oppression of gays and lesbians in language that is considered groundbreaking for its time.

Sadly, Hansberry’s life was cut short when she died from pancreatic cancer on Jan. 12, 1965. But her legacy lives on with both the ongoing success of A Raisin in the Sun, her unfinished and posthumously published plays (Les Blancs, The Drinking Gourd and What Use Are Flowers?) and the collection of her work titled To Be Young, Gifted and Black, which music great Nina Simone crafted as a tribute to her late friend Hansberry.

The book title and inspiration for the song come from a speech Hansberry gave in 1964 before a group of winners of the United Negro Fund writing competition. In it, she said, “Though it be a thrilling and marvelous thing to be merely young and gifted in such times, it is doubly so, doubly dynamic, to be young, gifted and Black!”

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