Irene McCoy Gaines (1892-1964), born in Florida, moved with her family to Chicago where she attended elementary and high school. At the age of 16, she began her studies in social work at Fisk University (Nashville) followed by two years at the University of Chicago. Even though she had a college education, Gaines first worked as a housekeeper because of discrimination. She persevered and was successful in getting a job as a stenographer at the Cook County Juvenile Court, a position that helped her see the many challenges that Black youth faced in Chicago. During WWI, Gaines worked as an organizer for the Girls’ Division of the US Department of Labor’s War Camp Community Service Program. Gaines later became the industrial secretary of the first Black branch of the YWCA followed along with leadership positions in The Chicago Urban League, the District Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs and the Woman’s Trade Union League. She began a long tenure with the Cook County Welfare Department in 1930. In 1939 Gaines founded the Chicago Council of Negro Organizations whose primary focus was to protest education inequality due to segregation.
Gaines was the first Black woman to run for the Illinois State Legislature. Her election loss did not deter her from her activism. She was one of the organizers of the 1941 March on Washington which resulted in FDR’s executive order to ban discrimination in federally funded companies and she was the first person to address the United Nations on the issue of discrimination and oppression of Black women.
Why this stop? The Blue Line Pulaski stop is three blocks west of the Irene McCoy Gaines Apartments, a Chicago Housing Authority public housing building for low-income senior citizens.
WLP Connection The Cook County Juvenile Court (the first of its kind in the world) where Gaines worked as a stenographer came about due to the work of Lucy Flower.