Lorraine Hansberry, playwright and civ¬ il rights activist, was bom in Chicago, where her parents were always politically active. Unsatisfied with segregationist housing policies, they moved their family into an all-white neighborhood on the South Side when Lorraine was eight years old.
Enduring threat, harassment and insult, the family stayed until a lower court ruling forced them out. Unbeaten, Carl Hansberry took the case to the US Supreme Court. In 1940, the segregationist policy was struck down. This was the defining event of Lor¬ raine’s youth, and it made for the subject of the first play on Broadway written by an African-American woman.
Once Lorraine had graduated from Englewood High School in 1948, she attended the University ofWisconsin, leav¬ ing after two years oftheater to study paint¬ ing at numerous schools, including the Art Institute of Chicago. She met Paul Robeson (see no. 57), who was publishing Freedom, and became the magazine’s associate editor in 1952.
In 1957, after her marriage to Robert Nemiroff, Hansberry wrote the first draft of what would become one of the most informative and important plays to hit Broadway, A Raisin in the Sun. Named after a line from Langston Hughes’ poem “Harlem”(see no. 64), A Raisin in the Sun told the story of the young black family she had grown up in as they tried to build a home for themselves in a white neighborhood.
Not only was the play written with an extremely sensitive hand, it struck a nerve among the white and black communities poised for the explosive struggle just ahead. Succeeding in New Haven, and then Philadelphia, Hansberry’s first play opened on Broadway on March 11, 1959, creat¬ing an overnight sensation.
It ran for over a year and a half, won the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for Best Play of the Year, and featured artists who would change the face of the Broadway industry, including Sidney Poitier, Ruby Dee (see no. 77), and Lou Gossett.
Hansberry, an immediate celebrity, was asked to speak on civil rights and women’s issues, and privately with John F. Kennedy. She went on to write the text for an influen¬ tial photo documentary of the era called The Movement: Documentary ofa Struggle for Racial Equality in the US (1964).
Her other works include The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window (1965), and after her untimely death in 1965 due to. cancer, To Be Young, Gifted, and Black: Lorraine Hans¬ berry in Her Own Words, adapted by her husband, and Les Blancs: The Collected Last Plays ofLorraine Hansberry, edited by Nemiroff and released in 1972.