Fern Gayden Papers, 1883-1985
Biographical Note: Fern Gayden
Scope and Content: Fern Gayden Papers, 1883-1985
Biography and Family Records
Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom
Other Organizations | Pamphlets and Serials | Audiovisual (A/V)
Photographs | Memorabilia
|Provenance:||Donation of Shari Lawrence and Frances Lawrence, 2007|
|Size:||4 linear feet (6 archival boxes)|
|Repository:||Vivian G. Harsh Research Collection of Afro-American History and Literature, Carter G. Woodson Regional Library (Chicago Public Library), 9525 S. Halsted Street, Chicago, IL 60628|
|Citations:||When quoting material from this collection, the preferred citation is: Fern Gayden Papers [Box #, Folder #], Vivian G. Harsh Research Collection of Afro-American History and Literature, Chicago Public Library|
|Processed by:||Michael Flug, Senior Archivist, Harsh Archival Processing Project|
Fern Gayden (1905-1986)
Born in Kansas in 1905, Fern Gayden moved to Chicago at the age of 23. She had a 50-year career as a social worker, but became best known as a literary, fine arts and political activist. A founding member of the South Side Writers Group in the 1930s, Fern Gayden’s long and diverse career included leadership roles in the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom and the South Side Community Art Center. During World War II, she co-published Negro Story magazine with Alice Browning.
Fern Gayden was born in the small town of Dunlap, Kan., on September 29, 1905. Her mother, Frances Johnson, left Tennessee and migrated to Kansas during the turmoil of Reconstruction. Her father, Andrew Gayden, left Mississippi in the same period, joining the migration led by “Pap” Singleton. Along with her two brothers and two sisters, Fern Gayden attended Dunlap’s all-black elementary school. She graduated from Dunlap High School, which was integrated. Gayden went on to attend Kansas State Teachers College at Emporia and taught school for one year.
Hoping to become a lawyer, she moved to Chicago in fall 1928 and found housing with a family at 53rd Street and Wabash Avenue. She worked as a stenographer in a law firm. As the Great Depression deepened in 1932, she was hired as a clerk by the Illinois Emergency Relief Commission. She soon enrolled in courses at University of Chicago and at Northwestern University, and was hired as a caseworker at the Cook County Department of Welfare. There Gayden joined the CIO union representing the caseworkers, and walked on her first picket lines. For a time she was the caseworker assigned to Richard Wright’s family.
Gayden was an active participant in the movements of the 1930s. She agitated for the Scottsboro Defense Committee, and attended meetings at the Rev. Harold Kingsley’s Church of the Good Shepherd, where she joined the International Negro Youth Movement. In that milieu, she got to know novelist Richard Wright, political activist Claude Lightfoot, playwright Theodore Ward and sculptor Marion Perkins. She also worked on the Chicago Urban League’s membership campaign and was at the forefront of a 1937 protest against segregated beaches at a state park in the Indiana dunes. Her activism led to lifelong friendships with many of the leading participants in the Chicago Renaissance.
In 1936 she was invited to join the South Side Writers Group, a small circle organized by Richard Wright and Margaret Walker that met at the Abraham Lincoln Center. The group also included writers Frank Marshall Davis, Ted Ward, Bob Davis, Edward Bland and Marian Minus. She worked with Bland on a 1942 article published in Negro Quarterly, “Social Forces Shaping the Negro Novel.” Although she described herself as a co-author, she is only thanked for her “aid in the early stages” in the article as printed.
Two years later she joined with Alice Browning to co-publish a magazine of short stories and poetry “by and about Negroes.” The magazine, Negro Story, had only a small circulation but turned out to be remarkably influential. Widely discussed in the black press, it featured articles by such prominent writers as Ralph Ellison and Gwendolyn Brooks, and by a host of then-little-known authors. Browning and Gayden had their differences, and Gayden left the magazine in 1945. In the late 1940s, she was one of the founders of All Souls Unitarian Church, a house of worship dedicated to interracial cooperation.
In the latter years of her life, while living in Chicago’s Oakland community, she devoted much of her energies to three organizations—the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF), the Southside Community Art Center and the Chicago Jean Baptiste Point DuSable League. She joined the WILPF in the mid-1950s and was active in its Chicago branch until the end of her life. She held offices in the branch, represented the organization at public events and kept many of the records.
In 1960 she was elected president of the South Side Community Art Center, a community-based organization that originated in the WPA. At the time of her election, the center had lost much of its membership and conducted few programs. In her nearly 10 years in office, she was credited with a leading role in reviving the center. Much of her work is documented in the archives now held at South Side Community Art Center.
Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, Gayden was also active in the DuSable League, serving several terms as its vice president. The league successfully campaigned to have the City of Chicago recognize Jean Baptiste Point DuSable as the founder of the city.
Fern Gayden died May 27, 1986 at Michael Reese Hospital.
- Heise, Keenan. “Fern Gayden, Chicago Social Worker, Activist,” Chicago Tribune, June 3, 1986.
- Knupfer, Anne. The Chicago Renaissance and Women’s Activism. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2006.
- Mullen, Bill V. Popular Fronts: Chicago and African-American Cultural Politics, 1935-46. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1999.
- Rowley, Hazel. Richard Wright: The Life and Times. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2002.
The Fern Gayden Papers have been arranged in several series that document her biography and family history, her work in the Chicago Branch of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF) and other organizations in which she participated. Other series include pamphlets and serials in her papers, audiovisual materials, photographs and memorabilia.
With the exception of some WILPF materials, the papers were not arranged upon arrival. All other arrangement has been imposed.
Series 1: Biography and Family Records
This series includes birth and death certificates, diplomas, autobiographical materials, correspondence and family album copies for Fern Gayden and members of her family. A handwritten autobiographical statement by Gayden is of particular importance. Also included is an interview with Theodore “Ted” Ward, conducted near the end of Ward’s life, while he was living at Gayden’s house.
Series 2: Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF)
Fern Gayden served in several positions in the Chicago Branch of WILPF. This series includes minutes, attendance lists, flyers, programs, anniversary celebrations and reports of the Chicago Branch, the Chicago Metro Branch and the national organization.
Series 3: Other Organizations
This series includes materials from the South Side Community Art Center, the Cook County Department of Public Welfare, the Marion Perkins Memorial Foundation and the “Black Women in the Middle West” project.
Series 4: Pamphlets and Serials
A variety of pamphlets and serials held by Fern Gayden are included in this series. They include writings by Eugene Perkins, Edward Gaskin and Fidel Castro. Among the serials is a single copy of Negro Story magazine, 1946.
Series 5: Audiovisual (A/V)
Included here are a videotape documentary presentation on the life of Fern Gayden, produced by her niece, Frances Lawrence, and an oral history audiocassette tape on Gayden’s life and work with discussants Frances Lawrence, Shari Lawrence and Susan Cayton Woodson. The series also includes audiotapes documenting the life of WILPF founder Jane Addams and a speech by Coretta Scott King on the 50th anniversary of the founding of WILPF.
Series 6: Photographs
This series includes Gayden family photographs, travel photos and scenes of the WILPF ceremony at Jane Addams gravesite.
Series 7: Memorabilia
This series includes one 19th century plate from a French art book, a poster from the South Side Community Art Center and other memorabilia.
Fern Gayden Papers, 1883-1985