Lorraine Vivian Hansberry (May, 19, 1930-January 12, 1965): Playright, Civil Rights Activist, and Youngest American to Win the New York Critics’ Circle Award

Young Lorraine Hansberry
Young Lorraine Hansberry

This is Lorraine Vivian Hansberry. She was born on May 19, 1930 in Chicago, Illinois. Lorraine was the youngest of four siblings. Her father Carl Augustus Hansberry  was a successful banker (he founded Lake Street Bank, one of Chicago’s Banks for Blacks) and real estate broker and her mother, Nannie Perry Hansberry was a schoolteacher. Lorraine’s uncle, William Leo Hansberry was a professor of Africana studies at Howard University in Washington, D.C. Her family contributed funds to the NAACP and the Urban League and throughout her childhood, many prominent African-American social and political leaders such as W.E.B. DuBois, Langston Hughes, Paul Robeson,  Duke Ellington, and Jesse Owens visited Lorraine’s family home. When she was eight, Lorraine’s family moved to a white neighborhood in which they were violently attacked by white mobs. Her parents refused to move the family and the case was taken to the Chicago Supreme Court (Hansberry vs. Lee) which ruled that restrictive covenants were illegal. The court upheld the legality of the restrictive covenant and Lorraine’s family was forced to leave, but later the U.S. Supreme Court reversed the decision based on a legal technicality. The decision resulted in 30 blocks  of Chicago’s South side given to African-Americans. The case marked the end of racially restricted covenants even though it was not argued that they were illegal.

Lorraine graduated from Englewood High School. Lorraine broke her family tradition of enrolling and attending Southern Black Universities and attended the University of Wisconsin, Madison. She first majored in painting then switched her major to writing. After two years, she dropped out and moved to New York. There Lorraine attended the New School for Social Research. She became a writer and associate editor for Paul Robeson’s progressive Black Newspaper, Freedom from 1950 to 1953. She also worked part-time as a waitress and cashier, writing in her spare time. In 1956, Lorraine quit her jobs to devote her self to writing full-time. In 1957, she join the Daughters of Bilitis and contributed a letter to their magazine, The Letters, on the subjects of feminism and discrimination.


While writing for The Letters, she wrote her first play the Crystal Stair later renamed A Raisin In the Sun about a struggling Black Chicagoan family. The play was named after a line in Langston Hughes’ poem, “Harlem”:

“What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore — and then run?”

The played debuted at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre on March 11, 1959 and was a very successful with 530 performance runs. James Baldwin said of the play:

… never before, in the entire history of the American theater, had so much of the truth of black people’s lives been seen on the stage.

A Raisin In the Sun was the first play produced on Broadway by a African-American Woman. Lorraine was the first African-American playwright and the youngest person to win the New York Critics’ Choice Award. The film version of the play debuted in 1961, starring Sidney Poitier and received an award at the Cannes Festival that same year. In 1963, Lorraine became active in the Civil Rights Movement along with many renowned Black People such as Lena Horne, James Baldwin, Harry Belafonte, Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, and others. She joined SNCC in 1962 and met with the Attorney General Robert Kennedy along with James Baldwin to see where he stood on the issue of Civil Rights. That same year, her second play The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window opened on Broadway but it was not as well received as A Raisin In the Sun.


Lorraine met and married to Jewish songwriter, Robert Nemiroff in 1953 at a protest against racial discrimination at New York University. They divorced in 1962, but continued to work together. Lorraine was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 1964. She passed away on January 12, 1965 at age 35. Six hundred people attended her funeral in Harlem and James Baldwin said of her:

Her going did not so much make me lonely as make me realize how lonely we were.

Lorraine had a few incomplete works at the time of her death such as “Toussaint,” an opera, “All the Dark and Beautiful Warriors,” an autobiographical novel. She also wanted to write plays about the Pharaoh Akhenaton, Mary Wollstonecraft, and Charles Chesnutt’s “The Marrow of Tradition” (1901). After hear death, Robert adapted and collected a collection of her unpublished writings, speeches, and interviews in an autobiographical montage, To be Young, Gifted, and Black, which James Baldwin wrote the introduction, “Sweet Lorraine.” He also edited and published her three unfinished plays, Les Blancs, The Drinking Gourd, and What Use Are Flowers? Robert named her autobiographical montage after a line in her speech given at the May 1964 United Negro Fund Writing competition. She said to the winners:

“…though it be thrilling and marvelous thing to be merely young and gifted in such times, it is doubly so, doubly dynamic, to be young, gifted and black!”


Lorraine’s play, A Raisin In the Sun, is considered a classic on the American stage and continues to draw audiences in the decades since her death. Television versions of the play won Emmy nominations in 1989 and 2008. The play won praises from Broadway and won two Tony awards in 2004 and 2014 including best revival of a play.

I salute this AMAZING HER-story making sista!


“Lorraine Hansberry.” Bio. A&E Television Networks, 2015. Web. 10 Apr. 2015.

“Lorraine Hansberry-Pioneer African-American Playwright.” Women’s History, About Education, 2015. Retrieved from http://womenshistory.about.com/od/aframerwriters/p/hansberry

“Lorraine Hansberry Biography.” Chicago Public Library, 2015. Web. 10 Apr. 2015. Retrieved from http://www.chipublib.org/lorraine-hansberry-biography/


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