Lorraine Vivian Hansberry was born May 19, 1930, the youngest of four children in a middle-class Black family in Chicago. Her parents had both been born in the South and moved as part of the Great Migration, the relocation of six million African Americans from the rural South to Northern urban centers in the early 20th century. In Chicago, her father Carl Augustus Hansberry became a successful real-estate broker, and her mother Nannie Louise Hansberry, a schoolteacher and ward committeewoman; both were active in the Urban League and the NAACP, and civil rights luminaries were often at the Hansberry home.
When her father bought a home in Washington Park, an all- white neighborhood in Chicago’s south side, white neighbors tried to oust their family through violent attacks and legal proceedings. With support from the NAACP, Carl Hansberry pled their case all the way up to the United States Supreme Court, which finally protected their right to their home.
After completing high school in Chicago, Hansberry enrolled in the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she was politically active on campus and studied visual art—until a chance encounter with Sean O’Casey’s play Juno and the Paycock inspired her interest in theater. In 1950, she left school to pursue what she called “an education of another kind” in New York City.
Hansberry joined the staff of Freedom, a new Pan-Africanist magazine helmed by Paul Robeson, where she started as a “subscription clerk, receptionist, typist, and editorial assistant” but quickly became a staff writer investigating racial injustice. On a picket line, she met a fellow activist, a Jewish songwriter named Robert Nemiroff, whom she married in 1953.
As the newlyweds settled in their Greenwich Village home, Nemiroff encouraged her writing, and by 1957, Hansberry had written the first draft of a new play: A Raisin in the Sun. The play went to Broadway and earned the young playwright acclaim and near-instant fame.
In 1957, as Raisin was taking off, Hansberry and her husband separated, and they later legally divorced in 1964, but they always remained close friends and collaborators; Nemiroff continued to help produce her plays, and she named him as her literary executor before her death.
During this time, Hansberry quietly pursued romantic relationships with other women and joined the lesbian-rights organization Daughters of Bilitis, even writing several letters to the editors of their magazine, The Ladder, signed only with her initials. While Hansberry remained closeted, and her sexuality has often been excluded from biographies, Hansberry’s longest-term lover, Dorothy Secules, was a tenant in her Greenwich Village brownstone and an honorary pallbearer at her funeral.
After the success of Raisin, Hansberry became an important voice
for civil rights—and kept writing. While her first two drafts for a film adaptation of Raisin were rejected as too politically radical, her third attempt premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 1961. She also wrote a never-produced television script called The Drinking Gourd and two more plays.
Her second play, The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window, premiered on Broadway in 1964. Centered on Sidney Brustein, a Greenwich Village
writer, and his tumultuous marriage, the play casts an unflattering light on 1960s bohemian culture and questions political and social progress. The play was less of a critical and commercial hit than Raisin, but Hansberry’s friends and artistic community rallied around the production—because Hansberry had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, and her health was failing. The play closed in January 1965, the same night that Hansberry died at the age of 34.
Hansberry’s third play, Les Blancs, was incomplete at the time of her death, but Nemiroff posthumously edited and produced it in 1970. The ambitious, epic work explores colonialism and revolution in an unnamed African country. Nemiroff also compiled her other writing—essays, speeches, letters, and diary entries—into a new autobiographical play called To Be Young, Gifted, and Black. Later theater-makers and scholars have admiringly reexamined Sidney Brustein and Les Blancs as works that were too ahead of their time to be appreciated within Hansberry’s short life.
Over 600 people filled the Church of the Master in Harlem for Hansberry’s memorial; Paul Robeson, Nina Simone, and Malcolm X were among her mourners, and James Baldwin and Martin Luther King, Jr. sent testimonials.
In a message read at Hansberry’s funeral, Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote: “Her creative ability and her profound grasp of the deep social issues confronting the world today will remain an inspiration to generations yet unborn.” King anticipated Hansberry’s lasting literary and political legacy—one we, those “generations yet unborn,” inherit today.