"No part of said premises shall in any manner be used or occupied directly by a negro or negroes."— Clause of the Woodland Neighborhood Restrictive Challenged By Carl Hansberry in 1938
The Hansberry's house in Washington Park still stands today.
When real estate developer Carl Augustus Hansberry sought to buy a better home for his family in 1938, he settled on a turreted brick structure at 6140 South Rhodes Avenue in the Washington Park area of Chicago. In doing so, he directly confronted one of the most entrenched realities of urban segregation: restrictive covenants. These agreements, signed by the property holders of Chicago’s white neighborhoods, stipulated the exclusion of all black residents with the insulting exception of “janitors, chauffeurs, or house servants.”
By 1938, restrictive covenants covered over 85% of the city, crowding its African-American population into dismal, overpriced housing. City leaders at many levels framed such restrictions as a necessary bulwark against racial disharmony. “However unsatisfactory [the covenants] may be,” declared Robert Hutchins, president of the University of Chicago, “they are the
only means at present available by which the members of the associations can stabilize the conditions under which they desire to live.” Those who defied the covenants, writes Chicago historian Arnold Hirsch, faced not only “mere examples of anti-Black animus,” but an entire system of “sophisticated psychological warfare” intended to keep them caged in the ghettoes.
Ironically, even as the covenants grew stricter, the economic situation worked against them. By 1937, Chicago had 50,000 more African-American residents than apartments where their occupancy was permitted. White property owners capitalized on the great demand, at times extracting exorbitantly high rent from black tenants in violation of the covenants.
James T. Burke, the prior owner of the house that Hansberry purchased, was one such landlord. He asserted that he would “put negroes in every block of that property.” In the end, it took only Carl Hansberry’s occupancy to set off an uproar.
Predictably, the local property owners association challenged Hansberry’s residency, claiming that “unless an injunction is granted, said neighborhood [would] become mixed, both white and colored with its attendant evils.” But Hansberry fought back, using his own real estate expertise and enlisting the aid of experienced NAACP lawyers. The Illinois Supreme Court ruled that since an earlier case had upheld the legality of the covenant, the issue was res judicata — already adjudicated and not subject to further decisions. On these grounds, it ordered the family to “remove from the premises.” Undaunted, Hansberry appealed, and the case ultimately landed before the United States Supreme Court in October 1940.
While the legal battle raged in Washington, Hansberry’s family was fighting a far more brutal war from their new home. His daughter Lorraine, ten years old at the time, would later describe how her mother, Nannie Louise Hansberry, stayed up nights clutching a pistol to defend her children from the “hellishly hostile” mobs, thrown bricks, and threats of arson that besieged them.
After two weeks, the Supreme Court finally reached a verdict, reversing the Illinois decision and securing the Hansberrys’ residency. However, wary of openly addressing the racial roots of the case, the Court abstained from ruling against restrictive covenants in general. Instead,
Hansberry v. Lee only held that res judicata did not apply in cases where the plaintiff had not been included in a previous class action. The covenant, they claimed, had fewer signatures than required to guarantee that the class in question included Lee. Civil rights legislation was on the move, but the Supreme Court balked at taking the first step. Restrictive covenants remained fully legal for another eight years.
Thus, the realities of her family’s struggle tempered Lorraine Hansberry’s optimism. Her father had gained a legal victory, but only by a technicality. It had cost him, she wrote, “a small personal fortune, his considerable talents, and many years of his life.” Six years later he died in Mexico while searching for a place to relocate his family, convinced that US racism was so pervasive it could only be evaded, not defeated.
A Raisin in the Sun takes place over a decade after Hansberry v. Lee, but the Youngers are engaged in a nearly identical struggle for dignity. Hansberry’s play thus questions the nominal legal progress made in that time. The poet Amiri Baraka, who had initially disparaged Raisin, later reflected, “The Younger family is part of the black majority and the concerns I once dismissed as ‘middle class’… are actually reflective of the essence of black people’s striving to defeat segregation, discrimination, and national oppression. There is no such thing as a ‘white folks’ neighborhood’ except to racists and those submitting to racism.”
Although the Washington Park neighborhood where Carl Hansberry defied the restrictive covenant is overwhelmingly African-American today, Chicago remains the most segregated city in America. Yet musing on why the city has produced so many prominent black leaders and artists despite its troubled history, scholar Lerone Bennett, Jr. speculates that, “Despite, or perhaps because of, the raw, brutal oppression of black people in this city, there has been and still is a sort of community here.”
— SAM LASMAN