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From Segregation to Integration: How Lorraine Hansberry’s Father used Real Estate to Transform Chicago’s South Side

Carl Hansberry was a successful real estate businessman who purchased property in the predominantly white neighborhood of Woodlawn on Chicago's South Side in the 1930s. His actions paved the way for other African Americans to move into predominantly white neighborhoods, helping to break down racial barriers in Chicago.

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Carl Augustus Hansberry
Image Credit: THE NEW YORK PUBLIC LIBRARY DIGITAL COLLECTIONS

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Chicago’s South Side has a rich history of African American culture and community, but that wasn’t always the case.

In the early 1900s, Chicago was a rapidly growing city with a diverse population. The majority of the population was of European descent, with immigrants from Germany, Ireland, and Sweden being the largest groups. African Americans made up a relatively small percentage of the population, but their numbers began to grow rapidly during the Great Migration.

In addition, there were also significant communities of Eastern European and Jewish immigrants, as well as smaller populations of Mexican and Chinese immigrants. The city was highly segregated, with racial and ethnic groups often living in distinct neighborhoods.

One of the main drivers of the Great Migration was the widespread racial discrimination and violence faced by African Americans in the Southern United States, particularly in the period after Reconstruction. Segregation laws and practices, such as Jim Crow laws, limited the economic opportunities and political rights of African Americans, and made it difficult for them to build prosperous lives in the South.

The industrial boom of World War I (1914-1918) also created new job opportunities in the North, particularly in industries such as manufacturing and steel. These opportunities attracted African American workers seeking better economic prospects.

Additionally, the spread of information through newspapers like the Chicago Defender about conditions and opportunities in the North encouraged many African Americans to migrate, despite the challenges and risks involved in moving to unfamiliar places. It’s estimated that over 100,000 African Americans migrated to Chicago in the early 1900s.

Economic status was not enough to prevent racial segregation

Chicago was one of the most popular destinations for African American migrants seeking better economic opportunities.

Although African Americans had access to better employment opportunities, they were restricted to living in certain neighborhoods when they arrived in Chicago. These neighborhoods were often subjected to subpar living conditions and discrimination. It was during this time that Carl Hansberry used real estate as a means to transform Chicago’s South Side and pave the way for integration.

Born in Mississippi on April 30, 1895, Carl Augustus Hansberry was a successful real estate broker and activist. He and his wife Nannie Perry welcomed their youngest child, Lorraine Hansberry, into the world on May 19, 1930, at Provident Hospital on the South Side of Chicago. The hospital was established in 1891 by Dr. Daniel Hale Williams, an African-American surgeon and medical pioneer. Lorraine went on to become a legendary playwright, celebrated for her groundbreaking play “A Raisin in the Sun.” Carl’s younger brother, William Leo Hansberry, was a renowned African studies scholar at Howard University in Washington, D.C.

Although the Hansberry family belonged to the middle-class, they still faced racial segregation. In the 1930s, Mr. Hansberry managed to purchased properties in Woodlawn at 413 E. 60th Street and 6140 S. Rhodes Avenue with the help of his white Realtor network. During this time, Black people were confined to an overcrowded area on Chicago’s South Side known as the “Black Belt” due to a discriminatory practice of restrictive covenants. These covenants, in which white property owners agreed not to sell to black people, contributed to segregation on Chicago’s South Side.

However, in May 1937, Hansberry decided to shake things up when he moved his family into the Woodlawn property located at 6140 S. Rhodes Avenue. The family was threatened by a white mob who threw a brick through a window, narrowly missing Carl Hansberry’s daughter Lorraine.

Carl Hansberry’s fight for justice in real estate

In June 1937, Carl A. Hansberry went to court in Chicago. He was found not the legal owner of the Woodlawn property he had purchased due to the restrictive covenant that was in place. Consequently, he was denied the right to occupy the property, and this ruling was upheld by two higher courts.

However, in November 1940, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed the decision. The deed to the property was returned to Hansberry, who repossessed it on January 1, 1941. This decision overturned an earlier ruling by the Illinois Supreme Court that upheld a segregated covenant imposed on approximately 500 properties in Chicago. It was determined that Hansberry had been denied due process of the law, which was guaranteed by the 14th Amendment.

According to Hardin County Independent, Hansberry regarded the moment of repossession as “an historic moment in the fight for equality of civil rights and liberties for peoples of all the world.” This case ultimately led to the outlawing of racially restrictive housing covenants, paving the way for greater integration in Chicago and beyond.

The impact of Carl Hansberry’s efforts can still be felt today, and his daughter Lorraine continued his legacy through her own work as a writer and activist. Lorraine drew on her experiences growing up on the South Side to write the play “A Raisin in the Sun,” which tells the story of a black family’s struggle to find a better life in a society that is stacked against them. The play became a sensation, and it remains a powerful reminder of the ongoing fight for civil rights and equality.

Carl Hansberry’s contributions to the transformation of Chicago’s South Side cannot be overstated. Through his work in real estate and banking, he helped to build a stronger and more vibrant African American community, and his efforts to challenge racial segregation laws set the stage for greater integration and civil rights progress. His legacy continues to inspire and inform those who seek to build a more just and equitable society.

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