Raisin the Roof

Three bedrooms, one full bath, a spacious kitchen, and a location that has come to represent the end of racially restrictive housing covenants in the United States. From the outside, the three-flat apartment building at 6140 S. Rhodes Avenue is an ordinary-looking red building. But the everyday struggles of a black family who chose to move to this Woodlawn residence in the 1930s–despite the fact that it was an all-white neighborhood–inspired the story “A Raisin in the Sun,” which later became the first drama by an African-American woman to be produced on Broadway.

Today, its wide cement stoop seems ideal for bored teenagers or neighborly parents. The only porch-dwellers in sight are a repairman across the street who is fixing a chipped stair, and a woman in an orange tracksuit dragging her laundry hamper through the house’s front door, inviting a reporter in behind her.

When Lorraine Hansberry and her family moved into the affluent white neighborhood of Woodlawn in 1937, they were welcomed with a bucket of beige paint poured on the family car. Later, a cement brick was thrown through their home’s front window, narrowly missing Lorraine and fixing itself into the living room wall. Her father fought local courts for the right to live with his family in the home that he had purchased. The tension culminated in 1940, when the case was brought before the U.S. Supreme Court. Its verdict brought an end to racial housing barriers.
In those years, limited access to employment and racial prejudice in lending and housing policies confined African-Americans to what was called Chicago’s “Black Belt,” a forty-block stretch running along State Street on the South Side. Families crowded into overpriced, dilapidated “kitchenette” apartments, conditions that resulted in widespread unemployment, poverty, and crime.

A class of students at the Amelia Earhart Elementary School first nominated the Hansberry House for historical landmark status within the city of Chicago in 2007, after studying the Hansberry family and urban racial segregation for a history fair. This past February, the City Council approved the designation, officially recognizing the Lorraine Hansberry House as part of the Chicago Black Renaissance literary movement between the 1930s and 1950s. These sites capture a time and place of artistic fertility on the South Side that produced works like “A Raisin in the Sun” that have been high school staples since. (The George Cleveland Hall Branch Library, the Richard Wright House, and Gwendolyn Brooks House were also recognized.)The face of Woodlawn has changed in the last 70 years, and so too has that of the Hansberry House. You can still see clearly the original floral molding on the outside wall of the apartment’s winding staircase, despite a fresh coat of paint.

Above a vacant first floor and an unknown tenant on the second, the building’s top apartment is the new home of Heather, a middle-aged mother of two. She moved to the house in search of more space for her boys, Christian and Justin, who are three and sixteen years old, respectively, who previously shared a bedroom, along with their German Shepherd, Star. Heather has been making hospital newsletters for the last eleven years. She looks tired, but is happy to be able to take her sons to tutors at the nearby UofC or to play at Washington Park. She points out the 60-year-old carved oval doorknobs outside her mostly bare bedroom. Christian runs frantically around unpacked boxes, shouting, “I’m gonna kick your butt.” He periodically pauses to make a muscle, growl, and fling himself onto the floor.

When asked if she had ever read or seen the play, Heather shakes her head, later adding, “But now, when my son has a book report for class, he’ll always have a story.”