Hansberry v. Lee
My father was typical of a generation of Negroes who believed that the “American way” could successfully be made to work to democratize the United States. Thus, twenty-five years ago, he spent a small personal fortune, his considerable talents, and many years of his life fighting, in association with NAACP attorneys, Chicago’s “restrictive covenants” in one of this nation’s ugliest ghettos. That fight also required that our family occupy the disputed property in a hellishly hostile “white neighborhood” in which, literally, howling mobs surrounded our house. One of their missiles almost took the life of
the then eight-year-old signer of this letter. My memories of this “correct” way of fighting white supremacy in America included being spat at, cursed and pummeled in the daily trek to and from school. And I also remember my desperate and courageous mother, patrolling our house all night with a loaded German Luger, doggedly guarding her four children, while my father fought the respectable part of the battle in the Washington court.
The fact that my father and the NAACP “won” a Supreme Court decision, in a now famous case which bears his name in the law books, is— ironically—the sort of “progress” our satisfied friends allude to when they presume to deride the more radical means of struggle. The cost,
in emotional turmoil, time and money, which led to my father’s early death as a permanently embittered exile in a foreign country when he saw that after such sacrificial efforts the Negroes of Chicago were as ghetto-locked as ever, does not seem to figure in their calculations.
—Lorraine Hansberry, Letter to the Editor of The New York Times, April 23, 1964
As Lorraine Hansberry recalls in this letter, when her family moved into the all-white Washington Park neighborhood in 1937, neighbors besieged their new home. A brick thrown through their window narrowly missed the then eight-year- old Lorraine, but it left its mark nonetheless.
One white neighbor, Anna Lee, sued Hansberry’s father for violating the area’s restrictive covenant: a legally binding agreement among local white landowners that prohibited selling property to Black families. The Illinois Supreme Court upheld the restrictive covenant and ruled to evict the Hansberry family. When Hansberry and the NAACP appealed to the United States Supreme Court, the ruling was reversed— but only based on a technicality. Restrictive covenants remained legal for almost a decade after Hansberry v. Lee, making it a landmark but partial victory.
In 1946, Hansberry’s father died suddenly on a trip to Mexico, and she blamed the stress of Hansberry v. Lee for his untimely death. Hansberry’s experience inspired A Raisin in the Sun and still urges us to examine how, despite the monumental efforts of the Hansberries and others like them, Black residents were “as ghetto-locked as ever.”
Housing Discrimination in Chicago
In the South, Jim Crow laws enforced segregation, while in the North, the law administered racism more insidiously. A powerful system of both legal and private housing discrimination confined Black families to so-called “Black Belt” neighborhoods like Bronzeville and cut them off from opportunities for home ownership.
As historians Hana Layson and Kenneth Warren explain, restrictive covenants were one legal form of discrimination: “contractual agreements among property owners that prohibited the sale or lease of any part of a building to specific groups of people.” While uncommon in the 1920s, restrictive covenants proliferated as white homeowners shunned the Great Migration of southern African Americans arriving in northern cities. By 1940, 80% of property in Chicago was under a racially restrictive covenant. But redlining blocked Black homebuyers from many, if not all, of that remaining 20%.
Redlining began in 1933 as part of the New Deal. The federal government sponsored an initiative called the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation (HOLC), which refinanced home mortgages with a mission of preventing foreclosure for families struggling during the Great Depression. The HOLC made home ownership achievable for more Americans by offering affordable mortgages with longer repayment periods and lower interest rates.
In order to determine who would benefit from this assistance, the HOLC assessed the creditworthiness of properties based on their neighborhood demographics, notably race. They produced maps that divided “A-grade” neighborhoods, where favorable mortgages were granted, from “D-grade” neighborhoods, color-coded or outlined in red and judged too “high-risk” for investment. This practice, now known as “redlining,” designated anywhere Black people lived as “hazardous.”
Redlining and restrictive covenants conspired to exclude Black families from home ownership and intensify segregation. Even previously diverse neighborhoods disbanded because the government gave white families an easier, subsidized road to home ownership—one that led far away from any “undesirable population or infiltration of it,” as the HOLC called Black residents. Richard Rothstein’s popular 2017 book The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America, offers a more comprehensive history of how policy- makers deliberately created segregation.
When the federal government created the HOLC and courts upheld restrictive covenants, the law left Black residents with few options and thus vulnerable to further discrimination and exploitation in the private sector. In Bronzeville, landlords subdivided single family apartments into several tiny, squalid “kitchenettes,” and then overcharged Black families to rent them. Denied HOLC subsidies and legitimate mortgages, Black home buyers were ushered toward “unscrupulous lenders who took them for money and for sport,” writes Ta-Nehisi Coates in his influential essay, “The Case for Reparations.” Predatory realtors “would sell homes at inflated prices and then evict families who could not pay—taking their down payment and their monthly installments as profit. Then they’d bring in another black family, rinse, and repeat,” Coates writes. Even Black residents who made it through this lending labyrinth found that because the HOLC “D-grade” repelled any new investment, the property they invested in quickly lost value.
The impact of both legal and private housing discrimination cannot be overstated. Home ownership is a cornerstone of the American Dream because it is “the most significant means of intergenerational wealth-building in the United States,” according to the redlining study “Mapping Inequality.” Owning a home generates and protects wealth: because homeowners can borrow money with their home as collateral, they can weather times of financial scarcity without falling into poverty, or they might fund education, entrepreneurship, or retirement. Then, they pass on that wealth and security to their children. Today’s wealth inequality is yesterday’s redline, restrictive covenant, or brick through the window.
Housing Discrimination in Our
Racially restrictive covenants were outlawed by the federal Fair Housing Act of 1968, but their legacy persists—through long-lingering effects as well as housing discrimination still practiced today. DataHaven is a local organization dedicated to “collecting, interpreting and sharing public data” for the benefit of community life here in Connecticut. In their 2019 “Greater New Haven Community Index,” based on a comprehensive study
of both quantitative data and in-person interviews, they assess wellbeing and life- satisfaction across different neighborhoods and demographics. Their data illustrates how discrimination and segregation continue to fracture our communities and affect our lives. Lorraine Hansberry imagined the Younger family navigating housing discrimination in 1959 Chicago, but how can we see these stories in our own hometowns today?
DataHaven compared contemporary housing statistics to the New Haven maps the HOLC redlined in the 1930s and found HOLC designations became neighborhoods’ destinies. DataHaven found “high rates of homeownership in higher-grade areas—79 percent in Greater New Haven’s A-grade areas compared to 44 percent overall and just 34 percent in D-grade areas. The areas are also racially segregated, and higher-grade areas were predominantly white in 2010. Seventy- eight percent of people in A-grade areas were white, compared to just 28 percent in D-grade areas.”
Individual homebuyers’ experiences and opportunities also continue to mirror the inequities established in decades past. DataHaven observed that high-cost mortgages, whose higher interest rates make them more expensive, disproportionately burden Black and Latinx homebuyers: “in Greater New Haven in 2017, just 4 percent of white borrowers received high-cost mortgages, compared to13 percent of Latino borrowers and 15 percent of Black borrowers. [...] These loans are often concentrated in areas with more non-white residents”—which harkens back to redlining.
Whether they buy or rent their homes, residents of Greater New Haven desperately need more affordable housing; DataHaven found two out of every five households must spend more than the recommended 30 percent of their income on housing. Government funding can help by encouraging the development of more affordable housing, but zoning regulations almost always hedge affordable housing within the old red lines. Government-assisted affordable housing is “disproportionately located in low-income neighborhoods and communities of color, further reinforcing social and economic segregation.” Just as A Raisin in the Sun’s Karl Lindner claims he is looking out for everyone’s best interest, this seemingly benevolent government assistance often doubles down on segregation.
Segregation causes disparate qualities of life, perhaps most starkly illustrated through life expectancy. In New Haven’s low-income neighborhoods, like Newhallville, the life expectancy is just 71 years, while the citywide average is 78.2 years, and in wealthier, whiter towns it’s even higher, up to 83.4 years in Orange.
As Ta-Nehisi Coates writes, “with segregation, with the isolation of the injured and the robbed, comes the concentration of disadvantage [...]; the concentration of poverty has been paired with a concentration of melanin. The resulting conflagration has been devastating.”
- Molly FitzMaurice