In the 1950s and ’60s, Greenwich Village was home to two African-American friends, the celebrated playwright Lorraine Hansberry (1930-1965) and author James Baldwin. Both were involved as civil rights activists, as well as early gay rights pioneers.
Hansberry moved into an apartment at 337 Bleecker Street in 1953, shortly after she married Robert B. Nemiroff. Around the time the couple separated in 1957, she joined the Daughters of Bilitis homophile organization and penned (only using her initials) several essay-length letters about such topics as sexual identity, feminism, and homophobia in its publication, The Ladder.
“When you see the plays and read the words of Lorraine Hansberry, you are reading the words of a woman who loved women deeply.”
In 1960, using a portion of the profits from her wildly successful play A Raisin in the Sun (1959), the first African-American woman’s work seen on Broadway, Hansberry purchased 112 Waverly Place near Washington Square as her residence. She became involved with one of the building’s tenants, Dorothy Secules, and the two remained partners until Hansberry’s premature death from cancer five years later.
In “Sweet Lorraine” (1969), Baldwin explained the significance of A Raisin in the Sun, “I had never in my life seen so many black people in the theater. And the reason was that never before, in the entire history of the American theater, had so much of the truth of black people’s lives been seen on the stage. Black people had ignored the theater because the theater had always ignored them.” The play had its Broadway premiere at the Ethel Barrymore Theater and was later moved to the Belasco Theater. In 1961, a movie version starred Sydney Poitier.
During her years on Waverly Place, Hansberry remained active in the civil rights movement. On May 24, 1963, she took part in the historic Baldwin-Kennedy meeting, at which a group of civil rights activists met with then-Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy to discuss race relations in the United States. The meeting was held at a Kennedy family apartment at 24 Central Park South. A year later, on June 15, 1964, she gave a famous speech at “The Black Revolution and the White Backlash” Forum at The Town Hall, 123 West 43rd street, which was sponsored by The Association of Artists for Freedom.