Home Real Estate Lorraine Hansberry’s Family Transformed the Face of Woodlawn During World War II....

Lorraine Hansberry’s Family Transformed the Face of Woodlawn During World War II. Can Black Developers Reverse Decades of Disinvestment on Chicago’s South Side?

Reviving Woodlawn: The Legacy of the Hansberry Family and the Future of Black Development in Chicago.

6300 South Evans Avenue on Chicago’s South Side | Charlene Rhinehart, Chicago Southsider

Reviving Woodlawn: The Legacy of the Hansberry Family and the Future of Black Development in Chicago.

Lorraine Hansberry’s family made history by becoming one of the first African Americans to move into Woodlawn on Chicago’s South Side.

Lorraine Hansberry Historical Landmark at 6140 South Rhodes Avenue in Chicago; Photo Credit: Charlene Rhinehart, 2022.

Lorraine Hansberry, who is best known for her award-winning play “A Raisin in the Sun,” was born at Provident Hospital on the South Side of Chicago on May 19, 1930. Her birth was a few months after the stock market crash in October 1929, which marked the beginning of the Great Depression.

The Great Depression had a devastating impact on Chicago, which was a major center for manufacturing industries. Businesses were forced to close and unemployment soared. Black workers, who were already facing discrimination in the workplace, were hit especially hard. By 1932, almost half of all black workers in Chicago were without a job, and many more were underemployed.

As the economic situation worsened, some white workers demanded that African Americans be fired from any available jobs, which only deepened existing racial tensions. With few income opportunities available, many Blacks were forced to live in overcrowded and inadequate housing.

Furthermore, restrictive covenants played a significant role in limiting housing opportunities in Chicago during this time. These covenants were agreements that prohibited the sale or rental of property to specific racial or ethnic groups. In many cases, they prevented African Americans and other minorities from moving into white neighborhoods, contributing to segregation and economic inequality.

Carl Hansberry’s Impact on Real Estate in Chicago

Carl Hansberry, Lorraine Hansberry’s father, was a successful real estate businessman during the Great Depression. He accumulated wealth by meeting the needs of the community, which included providing housing for poor Black Chicagoans. His middle class status earned him access to certain organizations and networks, allowing him to secretly purchase property in a racially-restricted neighborhood.

On May 26, 1937, Carl Hansberry moved his family into a property on 6140 S. Rhodes in the Woodlawn community, which was predominantly White and had restrictive housing covenants prohibiting Black residents from living there. The family faced hostility from neighbors and even survived an attack where a brick was thrown through their window.

Lorraine Hansberry home 6140 S. Rhodes on Chicago's South Side
Lorraine Hansberry’s childhood home at 6140 S. Rhodes in Chicago, IL; Photo Credit: Rhinehart Media Group

However, their troubles didn’t end there as white property owners sued Hansberry for violating the restrictive covenant. Despite lower courts upholding the covenant, the Hansberrys’ attorneys took the case to the state supreme court. Unfortunately, the court again upheld the covenant on October 15, 1939, citing an earlier decision that declared such covenants legal, which prevented it from being challenged again.

The Hansberrys then appealed to the United States Supreme Court, arguing that the covenant was invalid because it was signed by only 54 percent of the property owners when the requirement was 95 percent. The U.S. Supreme Court reversed the ruling in November 1940, leading to the return of the property’s deed to Carl Hansberry on January 1, 1941.

This decision overturned a previous ruling by the Illinois Supreme Court that upheld a restrictive covenant enforced on around 500 properties in Chicago. The decision was based on the fact that Hansberry was denied due process of the law, as guaranteed by the 14th Amendment.

Despite facing hostility and discrimination from their neighbors, the Hansberrys’ presence in the community paved the way for other black families to follow. Middle-class Black families who could afford to buy properties outside of the Black Belt — the area of South Side neighborhoods with predominantly Black and brown residents — started to be drawn to Woodlawn.

After World War II, a significant number of Black families began moving to Woodlawn. The neighborhood’s middle class appeal slowly faded away in the 1950s as more Black people of all income levels moved into the community to escape the overpopulated areas that kept growing due to the Great Migration. In the 1960s, Woodlawn’s population was around 80,000 and predominately African American.

In the decades that followed, Woodlawn, like many other predominantly black neighborhoods across the country, was hit hard by disinvestment, redlining, and systemic racism. Vacant lots, abandoned buildings, and boarded-up storefronts became a common sight, and the community struggled to attract investment and economic opportunities.

“My mother moved to the Woodlawn area in the 1950s,” says Edris Young-Staton, a long-time resident of Chicago. “When I was born in 1958, we were living on 62nd University. There was a Hi Low Grocery, A&P store, and Walgreens. The area was kind of rough. We moved out of Woodlawn in 1976.”

Black real estate developers come together to transform Woodlawn

Now, in the 21st century, a new generation of black developers say they are working to reverse decades of neglect and disinvestment in Woodlawn and other historically marginalized neighborhoods.

Bonita Harrison, Sean Jones, Keith Lindsey, DaJuan Robinson, and Derrick Walker, five Black real estate developers, bought 11 vacant lots in Woodlawn from the Cook County Land Bank, and unveiled the first seven “luxury” homes in the “Buy Back the Block” initiative in March. That marked the official completion of phase one of West Woodlawn Pointe on the 6300 block of South Evans.

Bonita Harrison, the sole female real estate developer in the West Woodlawn Pointe project, reflected on the block’s transformation since the groundbreaking in 2022, saying, “This ground where we stood in May was a vacant lot with overgrown weeds. Now look at it: vibrant, promising, inviting.”

Marcia Galloway grew up in Woodlawn in the 1960s and 1970s. She says the new buildings are a “great improvement.” She shared her thoughts on a Facebook post, “Looking more like my old neighborhood. We had nice, well kept apartments back in the day.”

The developers believe that the project is attracting new investment to the area, such as new stores and restaurants, which can contribute to the neighborhood’s revitalization.

But some people are skeptical about what the development means for current residents. Barrington Kenilworth IV commented on a Facebook post saying, “Where will all the people go who won’t be able to live in their own neighborhood anymore? The character of the neighborhood will be forever altered. It’s a shame if the developers and the politicians turn Woodlawn into just another Lincoln Park.”

Another Facebook user stated, “As long as there are new homes for everyone who wants to live there, then it will be a great new development for the area.”

21-year-old Breanna Daniels grew up on 63rd and Evans. Her great grandmother’s father purchased one of the houses on the block, which created memories for six generations of family members.

“Knowing my childhood home was picture perfect at some point to seeing them abandoned and getting newly remodeled [homes in the area] saddens me, but it also brings me joy due to half of the living conditions we faced.”

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