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Hansberry v. Lee: The Supreme Court Case that Influenced the Play “A Raisin in the Sun”

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The following is a guest post by Sarah Friedman, a Presidential Management Fellow working in the Public Services Division at the Law Library of Congress. She previously authored The Legal History of the Presidential Management Fellows Program.

In March of 1959, Lorraine Hansberry’s play, A Raisin in the Sun, opened on Broadway. The play centers on the story of a Black family who decides to purchase a home in an all-white neighborhood in Chicago. Decades before Hansberry published her play, her family had a similar experience when they attempted to purchase a home in a white neighborhood where homeowners had agreed to a racially restrictive covenant. Neighbors attempted to enforce the discriminatory agreement, resulting in the Supreme Court case, Hansberry v. Lee, 311 U.S. 32 (1940).

In 1937, Lorraine Hansberry’s father, Carl Hansberry, purchased a home in Woodlawn, a white neighborhood in Chicago. The Hansberrys’ new home was in a neighborhood where approximately five hundred property owners had entered into an agreement “that for a specified period no part of the land should be ‘sold, leased to or permitted to be occupied by any person of the colored race.’” (Hansberry at 37-38). At the time, agreements like the one at issue in the case, which are called restrictive covenants, were included in deeds across the country to prevent neighborhood racial integration.

An ad for home sales in a neighborhood with racially restrictive covenants, including an example text from one covenant that reads, “The buyer agrees that no estate in or possession of the said premises shall be sold, transferred, or conveyed to any person not of the Caucasian race.”
Exclusionary Covenants. Photo by Flickr user elycefeliz. April 1, 2006. Used under Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

Homeowners used racially restrictive covenants to maintain segregated neighborhoods and, until the mid-20th century, they were enforceable in court. A restrictive covenant is a provision in a deed that limits the use of real property by the grantee, the person who receives ownership of the property. Homeowners created racially restrictive covenants by including language in their deeds that explicitly limited the sale of property to white buyers, or prohibited the sale of the property to members of specific racial or ethnic groups. If a homeowner violated the covenant, other homeowners who agreed to the covenant could go to court to seek an injunction to prevent the sale of the property. In 1948, the Supreme Court ruled in Shelley v. Kraemer, 334 U.S. 1 (1948), that court enforcement of discriminatory restrictive covenants violated the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. However, private individuals could continue to include racially restrictive language in their deeds and carry out these discriminatory agreements themselves.

In Hansberry v. Lee, Anna M. Lee and other neighbors sued to stop the Hansberry family from moving into the neighborhood based on the neighborhood’s discriminatory covenant. (Hansberry at 37.) The Circuit Court of Cook County and the Illinois Supreme Court held that Mr. Hansberry was bound by the decision in an earlier class action suit, Burke v. Kleiman, 277 Ill. App. 519 (Ill. App. Ct. 1934). In that case, Burke sued to enforce the discriminatory covenant against a neighbor who violated the agreement by leasing a neighboring property to a Black tenant. (Burke at 520-21.) The parties in Burke agreed that the restrictive covenant was valid. The Illinois courts ruled that the issue of the restrictive covenant’s validity could not be litigated again, because of the legal principle of res judicata, which prohibits parties from relitigating matters that have already been decided in court. (Hansberry at 38.)

Represented by an NAACP litigation team, the Hansberrys appealed the state court’s decision to the U.S. Supreme Court. The appeal was successful, but not because the court ruled that discriminatory covenants were unconstitutional or illegal. Instead, the Supreme Court reversed the state court ruling because the interests of the parties in Hansberry were not adequately represented in Burke, so the stipulation that the agreement was valid in the earlier case did not bind the Hansberry parties. The Hansberrys successfully argued that the agreement was invalid and defended their right to keep their Woodlawn home, but the fight to outlaw all discriminatory covenants carried on. The Supreme Court would not declare court enforcement of discriminatory restrictive covenants unconstitutional for another eight years, when they handed down the Shelley ruling.

A movie poster for a raisin in the sun, with the star's name, sidney poitier, written across the top. The image includes a black man's face surrounded by a white circle inside an orange square.
A Raisin in the Sun. 1959. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division. //

In A Raisin in the Sun, one of the story’s major conflicts reflects the Hansberry family’s real-life experience of housing discrimination in Hansberry v. Lee. The play follows the Youngers, a Black family in Chicago who decide to purchase a home in Clybourne Park, a white neighborhood. Like the Hansberrys, the Youngers face prejudiced neighbors who attempt to stop the family from living in the neighborhood. After the Youngers put a down payment on the home, the Clybourne Park Neighborhood Association sends a representative who attempts to buy out the property before the family moves in. The Youngers turn down the offer and the play ends with the family leaving their apartment to move into their new home. The play had a successful Broadway run and was made into a film starring Sidney Poitier in 1961. The film was added to the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry in 2005.

By the time the play debuted in 1959 and the movie premiered in 1961, the Supreme Court had already ruled that court enforcement of a discriminatory restrictive covenant like the one in Hansberry v. Lee was unconstitutional. However, the story remained relevant because little had changed; private parties were still free to discriminate against homebuyers based on their race. Racially restrictive covenants remained legal until the Fair Housing Act, Title VIII of the Civil Rights Act of 1968, prohibited discrimination in the sale or rental of housing based on race, color, religion, or national origin.

The Hansberry family’s Woodlawn home at the center of the Supreme Court case still exists today. It was designated a historic landmark by the city of Chicago in 2010 and it continues to serve as a reminder of civil rights activists’ long fight against housing discrimination.

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Comments (4)

  1. great blog, thanks!

    Although this is a story of progress, it makes me wonder about this country 🙁

  2. Great Blog. Very insightful to track the negative effects of racial covenants and housing discrimination via Hansberry’s family experience. Ms. Friedman’s blog highlights the long-term struggle for fair and equal treatment in attaining and maintaining real property for minorities in this country.

  3. Interesting blog. Lorraine Hansberry wrote that she was an eight-year-old when the family moved into the Woodlawn house, and something thrown through the window almost killed her. Her mom carried a gun.
    For more on the relationship of the play, the Hansberry case, and racial covenants, readers might be interested in (ahem) my “Raisin, Race, and the Real Estate Revolution of the Early 20th Century,” in LaCroiox, Levmore, and Nusbaum’s Power, Prose and Purse (2019)

  4. That’s super interesting. It is always good to be informed about history.

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