Existence in Chicago’s South Side in the 1950’s was harsh. Discriminatory housing policies meant that the majority of African American families lived like the Youngers, in kitchenette apartments – larger apartments were broken up into several smaller homes, with a very small kitchen and one bedroom. Entire families lived in these apartments, and usually shared a bathroom in the hallway with others on the floor.
Breaking up apartments like this allowed landlords – like Carl Hansberry, Lorraine’s father – to greatly increase the income they gained from their buildings. And the more people they fit into their buildings, the more crowded the South Side became. In 2003, Timuel Black interviewed residents of the South Side from the 50’s, as a way of capturing the oral history of the area. One recalled, “It was so crowded because back then all of us were moving all the time! First white folks moved out, then black folks would move in. We even had something called “Moving Day,” which was in September and sometimes also in April. That’s when the white folks would be leaving and the black folks would be coming in. It was kind of prestigious to do that because our community was constantly expanding, and we were always moving farther south.”
With overcrowding came an increase in the poor conditions. And because Federal Housing Authority policies actually encouraged discriminatory lending policies, very few African American families were able to secure the loans necessary to move out of the neighborhood, even if they were prepared for the uphill battle against racism they might receive in another area. So the South Side began more and more to look like this:
This is what the Younger family in A Raisin in the Sun is fighting so hard to get out of – overcrowded spaces both inside and outside of their apartment walls, which are crumbling around them. What happens when a family – or a whole city full of families – is pushed to the brink like this, where even getting up in the morning involves a fight with those around you?
This post is a summary of a some research into the South Side – for more thorough information, and an in-depth look at the discriminatory housing policies mentioned, I recommend:
- Black, Timuel D. Bridges of Memory: Chicago’s First Wave of Black Migration. Evanston: Northwest University Press, 2003.
- Miller, Wayne F. Chicago’s South Side: 1946-1948. Berkeley: University of California Press, Ltd., 2000.
- Satter, Beryl. Family Properties: Race, Real Estate, and the Exploitation of Black Urban America. New York: Metropolitan Books, 2009.