Lorraine Hansberry remembered the house at 6140 S. Rhodes, which her family moved into when she was eight years old, as being “in a hellishly hostile ‘white neighborhood’ in which literally howling mobs surrounded our house.”
She recalled “being spat at, cursed and pummeled in the daily trek to and from school.” In “To Be Young, Gifted and Black,” the posthumous collection of her writings, she remembered her mother keeping watch all night with a loaded gun while her father was out of town.
The family’s struggle when they moved into Washington Park in 1937 — including a lawsuit which went to the Supreme Court — is reflected in Hansberry’s groundbreaking play, “A Raisin in the Sun,” which opened on Broadway in 1959.
On Monday, a City Council committee is expected to consider a recommendation from the Commission on Chicago Landmarks to list the Hansberry House as one of four buildings representing the Chicago Black Renaissance literary movement of the mid-20th century.
Lorraine Hansberry’s father was a successful businessman and prominent activist – visitors to their home included W.E.B. DuBois, Duke Ellington, Langston Hughes, Jesse Owens, Paul Robeson. When a white neighbor sued to enforce a restrictive covenant barring African Americans from buying homes in the area, Carl Hansberry took the case to the U.S. Supreme Court, with Earl B. Dickerson as his attorney.
In 1940, in the landmark case Lee v. Hansberry, the Supreme Court overturned the Washington Park covenant. The case helped lay the groundwork for a 1948 ruling that declared all restrictive covenants unconstitutional.
Other buildings being considered Monday include the homes of Richard Wright, 4831 S. Vincennes, and Gwendolyn Brooks, 7428 S. Evans, as well as the George C. Hall Branch of the Chicago Public Library, 4801 S. Michigan.
Wright lived in Chicago from 1927 to 1937, publishing his first stories, writing his first novel (published posthumously as “Lawd Today!”), working with the Federal Writers Project of the New Deal and founding the South Side Writers Club with writers like Arna Bontemps, Margaret Walker, and Horace Cayton. His most famous novel, “Native Son,” is set on Chicago’s South Side.
After he got a post office job in 1929, Wright was able to move his mother, aunt and brother out of a rooming house and into the second-floor, four-room apartment on Vincennes, where he had room to read and write. They lived there till 1932.
Gwendolyn Brooks wrote poems of life in Bronzeville and of protest against segregation and brutality. Her career bridged the Black Renaissance of the 1930s and ’40s and the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s and ’70s. She succeeded Carl Sandburg as Illinois poet laureate and was the first African American named to the American Academy of Arts and Letters. With her husband and children, she lived in the modest house at 7428 S. Evans for over 40 years.
The Hall Library opened in 1932, headed by Vivian Harsh, the first African American branch librarian in Chicago. She developed a remarkable Special Negro Collection (it’s now the Vivian G. Harsh Collection and housed in its own wing at the Woodson Regional Library), along with community programs including a biweekly literary forum which attracted leading authors. Located at the heart of Bronzeville, the library was also central to the Black Renaissance. Harsh served as head librarian until 1958.
Landmark status would mandate approval by the landmarks commission whenever building permits are requested for any of the buildings.
Last year the Illinois Supreme Court declined to review an Appellate Court decision that found the criteria for selection in the landmarks ordinance to be unconstitutionally vague. The original case will be reheard later this year in circuit court. The ordinance remains in effect.
The overturning of longstanding precedent stunned preservationists and called into question the future of landmark preservation law in Chicago. In December a state court in Washington rejected a similar argument which cited the Illinois ruling. (Vince Michaels of the School of the Art Institute blogs about it at Time Tells.)
Another Bronzeville landmark, the South Side Community Art Center, launches a 70th anniversary celebration next month. The last remaining center developed by the New Deal’s Federal Arts Project, it was founded by Margaret Burroughs among others and dedicated by Eleanor Roosevelt in 1941.