Descriptive inventory for the Irene McCoy Gaines papers, 1896-1968, bulk 1940-1959

Irene McCoy Gaines papers

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Descriptive inventory for the Irene McCoy Gaines papers, 1896-1968, bulk 1940-1959

Prepared by Lucy F. West, 1970; edited by Julie Wroblewski, 2015
Please address questions to:
Chicago History Museum, Research Center
1601 North Clark Street
Chicago, IL 60614-6038
Instructions for accessing this collection

Collection Overview +/-

Title: Irene McCoy Gaines papers, 1893-1968 (inclusive), 1940-1959 (bulk)
Creators: Irene McCoy Gaines
George Washington Ellis
Dates: 1893-1968 (inclusive), 1940-1959 (bulk)
Accession numbers: M1969.0044
Bib number: 00065915
Call numbers: MSS Lot G
MSS Oversize G
MSS MicroM G
Size: 5 linear feet (10 boxes <p> 1 oversize folder <p> 8 sound discs (0MM.209) <p> 1 microfilm reel: neg.; 35 mm)
Language of material:Collection is written in English.

Provenance statement:

Materials were a gift from Mrs. Gaines' son, Harry B. Gaines, beginning in 1969 (accession # M1969.0044; M1969.0056; M1977.0005).

Terms governing use:

No known restrictions.


For sound recordings, it is necessary to use a copy, not the original (and to have a use copy made if one is not available).

Please cite this collection as:

Irene McCoy Gaines papers, 1893-1968 (Chicago History Museum) plus a detailed description, date, and box/folder number of a specific item.

Additional Materials +/-

Related material:

Related materials at Chicago History Museum, Research Center, include publications by and about Mrs. Gaines cataloged separately and photographs of Mr. and Mrs. Gaines cataloged separately.

The largest portion of documentation of Mrs. Gaines' service to the National Association of Colored Women's Clubs is held by that organization at its headquarters in Washington, D.C., and there is a small collection of Irene McCoy Gaines papers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Collection Summary +/-

Correspondence, mimeographed and printed material, certificates, posters, phonograph records of speeches, minutes of meetings and conventions, scrapbooks, and other papers relating to activities of Mrs. Gaines, a leader in local, state, and national organizations of African American club women, Chicago social service organizations, and the Republican Party. Topics include the civil rights movement; her service as president of the National Association of Colored Women; Republican Party activities and Mrs. Ruth Hanna McCormick's senatorial campaign; and personal and family matters. Little in the collection relates directly to Mrs. Gaines' career as a social worker in Chicago. The collection contains scattered items of personal correspondence to Mrs. Gaines from her husband, parents, and sons (ca. 75 items).

The collection includes few papers of Mrs. Gaines' husband, Harris B. Gaines, who was a Chicago lawyer and Illinois legislator, and of her sons, Harris B. Gaines, Jr., (known as Harry) and Charles E. Gaines. There are a few radio and play scripts relating to African American history in which her son, Harry Gaines, performed. Collection includes ca. 200 items, 1893-1919, of Mrs. Gaines' uncle, George Washington Ellis (1875-1919), who was an author and lawyer. These items include letters, diary, articles, and other papers, some relating to his book Negro Social Life and Culture in Africa [1914]. Other topics include African Americans and race relations, especially in Chicago; West Africans and political topics; Progressivism in the U.S.; his service as a secretary to the U.S. Legation in Liberia (1902-1910); and personal activities.

Microfilm of George Washington Ellis papers in this collection is available for purchase from Chicago History Museum.

Biographical/Historical Note +/-

Irene McCoy Gaines was a Chicago community and civil rights leader, a Republican Party activist, and an African American club woman of national standing. She was born in Ocala, Florida, on Oct. 1, [1896], the daughter of Charles B. McCoy and Mamie McCoy. She came to Chicago as an infant, attended Chicago public schools, and enrolled at Fisk University at an unusually early age. After graduation from Fisk, she was employed as a stenographer until the First World War opened opportunities to advance into full-time social work. After receiving special training from the War Camp Community Service and the Community Service of Chicago, she undertook additional training in social work in the YWCA Training School and at the University of Chicago and Loyola University. Thereafter until 1947, when she retired to devote herself to volunteer activities, Mrs. Gaines worked as a full-time social worker in a variety of positions, including service with the Cook County Bureau of Public Welfare, the Juvenile Court, the Cook County Hospital, and the Veterans Bureau, and as Industrial and General Secretary of the YWCA. Mrs. Gaines also was a caseworker consultant and the Director of the Women’s Division of the Chicago Urban League.

Married to Harris B. Gaines, a Chicago lawyer and member of the Illinois General Assembly (1928-1936), Irene McCoy Gaines developed a life-long loyalty to the Republican Party although this was somewhat tempered by her appreciation of the civil rights positions of the Democratic Party in the 1960s. From 1924 to 1935 she served as president of the Illinois Federation of Republican Colored Women’s Clubs and was active in party politics in other capacities, most notably as a hard-working supporter of the U.S. Senatorial candidacy of Mrs. Ruth Hanna McCormick (Republican, Illinois) in 1930. In 1948 Mrs. Gaines was an unsuccessful candidate for delegate to the National Republican Nominating Convention. Two years later, she was a Republican candidate for the Board of Commissioners of Cook County, and although defeated, she ran well ahead of other Republicans on the ticket. Club work and volunteer service became major interests during the 1940s. Mrs. Gaines helped to found and served as the first president (1938-1952) of the Chicago Council of Negro Organizations, a coordinating organization comprised of approximately one hundred civic, educational, religious, labor and social organizations. Another major concern of Mrs. Gaines was the Idlewild Lot Owners Association in Idlewild, Michigan, a resort area favored by African Americans, of which she was president from 1940 to 1954.

After service on committees relating to legislation and fine arts, Mrs. Gaines became president of the Illinois Association of Colored Women in 1941. In 1952, she was elected president of the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs, Inc. (NACWC), at the time an organization of approximately 100,000 members in 44 states. During her presidency of the NACWC, she led the organization into more assertive civil rights positions. Her office issued press releases in support of the Birmingham bus boycott and in behalf of Authurine Lucy’s efforts to gain admission as the first African American to attend the University of Alabama, and sent a non-governmental observer to the United Nations to further the interests of minority groups throughout the world. Mrs. Gaines was also a strong advocate of self-help projects on the individual and community levels. Along with her role in the purchase of a new headquarters building for the NACWC in Washington, D.C., Mrs. Gaines took great pride in the initiation in January 1956 of a nation-wide Community Improvement Project sponsored by the NACWC and funded by a $50,000 grant from the Sears Roebuck Foundation.

With the cabinet and membership of the NACWC almost equally divided between pro- and anti-Gaines factions, Mrs. Gaines’ next two years as president were marked by controversy. The chairman of the Community Improvement Project was dismissed, and a Burn the Mortgage Campaign, intended to pay off the $15,000 mortgage on the new headquarters building, netted less than $500. The club treasurer refused to release any funds, and legal action had to be taken to meet operating expenses. Despite these difficulties, Mrs. Gaines completed her term and was named Honorary President in 1958, when the candidate she backed for the presidency was elected. Mrs. Gaines remained active in a variety of conferences and campaigns in behalf of civil rights and human welfare until her death on April 4, 1964, just two months after her husband’s death on January 21, 1964. She was survived by two sons, Harris B. Gaines, Jr., (known as Harry) and Charles Ellis Gaines. Charles Ellis Gaines was a state representative who, like his father, served in the Illinois General Assembly. He died on March 28, 2000.

Catalog Subject Headings +/-

African American families--Illinois--Chicago
African American lawyers--Illinois--Chicago
African American women--Illinois--Chicago--20th century
African American women--Illinois--Societies and clubs--20th century
African American women--United States--Societies and clubs--20th century
African Americans--Illinois--Chicago
African Americans--Recreation--Michigan--Idlewild
African Americans--Relations with Jews
Diplomatic and consular service, American--Liberia
Discrimination in housing--Illinois--Chicago--20th century.
Elections--Illinois--Cook County--20th century
Women social workers--Illinois--Chicago
Ellis, George Washington, 1875-1919--Correspondence
Gaines, Charles Ellis, 1924-2000.
Gaines, Harris B. (Harris Barrett), 1890-1964
Gaines, Harris B., Jr.
Gaines, Irene M. (Irene McCoy), 1896-1964--Correspondence
Simms, Ruth Hanna McCormick, 1880-1944
Century of Negro Progress Exposition (1963 : Chicago, Ill.)
Chicago and Northern District Association of Colored Women
Chicago Council of Negro Organizations
Chicago Urban League
Idlewild Lot Owners Association (Mich.)
Idlewild Resort Co. (Chicago, Ill.)
Illinois Association of Colored Women
National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Chicago Chapter
Republican Party (U.S. : 1854- )
Young Women's Christian Association of Chicago
Phonograph records
Chicago (Ill.)--Race relations--20th century
Chicago (Ill.)--Social conditions--20th century
United States--Foreign relations--Liberia
United States--Race relations--20th century
West Africa--Social conditions--20th century

Organization and Arrangement of Collection +/-

The collection is arranged in two series. Each series is primarily chronological in arrangement.

Click on heading to view series description.

Series 1. George Washington Ellis papers, 1893-1919 (box 1)
Series 2. Irene McCoy Gaines files, 1917-1968 (box 1-9 and other items)

About This Finding Aid +/-

Creation: Finding aid encoded by Julie Wroblewski using Oxygen editor, 2015
Language: Finding aid is written in .
Other Finding Aids: Finding aid also submitted to Explore Chicago Collections portal.
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