Fern Gayden Papers

Fern Gayden Papers, 1883-1985
Dates: 1883-1985
Size: 4 linear feet (6 archival boxes)
Repository: Chicago Public Library, Carter G. Woodson Regional Library, Vivian G. Harsh Research collection of Afro-American History and Literature, 9525 S. Halsted St., Chicago, IL 60628
Collection Number: 2007/05
Provenance: Donation of Shari Lawrence and Frances Lawrence, 2007
Access: No restrictions
Citation: 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

Biographical Note

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.

Scope and Content Note

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 consists of photocopies of 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.

Container List

Fern Gayden Papers, 1883-1985

Series 1: Biography and Family History
Box 1 Folder 1 Biography, Delayed Birth Certificates for Fern Gayden, Dunlap, KS, 1904
Box 1 Folder 2 Record Card, Kansas Normal School, Emporia, KS, 1924
Box 1 Folder 3 Diploma, B.A., Northwestern University, 1968
Box 1 Folder 4 Autograph book, tribute to Fern Gayden, 11/29/1981
Box 1 Folder 5 Autobiographical statement by Fern Gayden, 5/20/1982
Box 1 Folder 6 Correspondence, 1945-1985. Correspondents include DuSable Lodge, I.W.O.; L. Epstein; Lena and Kap (?); M.G. McMahon; Edward Parham; Robert Bone.
Box 1 Folder 7 Program, 2nd International Feminist Book Fair, Oslo, Norway, 1986
Box 1 Folder 8 Note pads: notes on family history, black history, 1970s-1980s
Box 1 Folder 9 Family history–clipping, Dunlap, KS high school football team, 1917
Box 1 Folder 10 Family history–Death certificates, Andrew Gayden and Mary Jane Gayden, 1935, 1958
Box 1 Folder 11 Family history, Unknown author, notes on murder of Sam Patterson, Dunlap, KS, 1923
Box 1 Folder 12 Gayden family photo and memorabilia album (copies), c. 1890-2001. Includes photographs, flyers, clippings, report cards
Box 1 Folder 13 Notes on birth and death dates, cemetery location card, 1952
Box 1 Folder 14 “Proposal for Fern Gayden Memorial Park,” written by Shari Lawrence, [n.d.]
Box 1 Folder 15 F. Gayden, Notes on oral history and community history methodology, [n.d.]
Box 1 Folder 16 F. Gayden, Notes on genealogical methodology, [n.d.]
Box 1 Folder 17 F. Gayden, Research files on slavery in the U.S. and in Africa. Includes slaves’ oral histories, pro and anti-slavery documents
Box 1 Folder 18 Eugene Perkins, Interview with Theodore “Ted” Ward, 1974
Series 2:  Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF)
Box 2 Folder 1 WILPF, Chicago Branch, Minutes, 1957-1963
Box 2 Folder 2 WILPF, Chicago Branch, Minutes, 1978-1983
Box 2 Folder 3 WILPF, Chicago Branch, Attendance lists, 1951-1962
Box 2 Folder 4 WILPF, Chicago Branch, Leaflets/flyers, 1962-1974
Box 2 Folder 5 WILPF, Celebration of 50th anniversary, 1965
Box 2 Folder 6 WILPF, Chicago Branch, Programs and Activities, 1972-1973
Box 2 Folder 7 WILPF, Chicago Branch, Virginia McCullough, Report on World Peace Congress, 1973
Box 2 Folder 8 WILPF, Chicago Branch, Amicus Brief in ‘Kilgore v. Edelman,’ 1974
Box 2 Folder 9 WILPF, Chicago Metro Branch, Files, 1972
Box 2 Folder 10 WILPF, Chicago Inter-Branch bulletins and newsletters, 1962-1973
Box 2 Folder 11 WILPF, Asia Committee, [n.d.]
Box 2 Folder 12 WILPF, Jane Addams Centennial, 1960
Box 2 Folder 13 WILPF, Jane Addams Program at Chicago Public Library, 1962
Series 3: Other Organizations
Box 3 Folder 1 Cook County Dept. of Welfare, Public Assistance division, planning meeting, 7/8/1958
Box 3 Folder 2 South Side Community Art Center, flyer, c. 1980
Box 3 Folder 3 South Side Community Art Center, Membership information, 1985
Box 3 Folder 4 Marion Perkins Memorial Foundation, Inc., flyers and fundraising materials, 1961-1962
Box 3 Folder 5 “Black Women in the Middle West” project, flyers, clippings, notes, 1983-1985
Series 4: Pamphlets and Serials
Box 3 Folder 6 Pamphlet, Eugene Perkins, “An Apology to My African Brother,” 1965
Box 3 Folder 7 Pamphlet, Edward Gaskin, “Blacks Played a Significant Role in Improving Life on the Isthmus of Panama,” 1983
Box 3 Folder 8 Pamphlet, “Fidel Castro on Latin America’s Unpayable Debt…”, Havana, 1985
Box 3 Folder 9 Pamphlet, Mary Ann Beall and Lenny Lianne, eds., “Heartsong,” 1985
Box 3 Folder 10 Pamphlet, Rev. Maxwell Savage, “Unitarian Answers,” [n.d.]
Box 3 Folder 11 Serials, “The Social Service Review,” Chicago, September 1945
Box 3 Folder 12 Serials, “Negro Story,” Chicago, April-May 1946
Box 3 Folder 13 Serials, “Hyde Park-Kenwood Voices,” February 1969. Includes supplement on “Kids, cops and the community”
Series 5: Audiovisual Materials
Box 4 AV-1 “The Lady From the Sunflower State,” videotape documentary on the life of Fern Gayden. Produced by Frances Lawrence, 1988(?)
Box 4 AV-2 Oral history discussion (audiocassette) on the life of Fern Gayden, with Frances Lawrence, Shari Lawrence and Susan Woodson. Michael Flug, moderator, 3/24/2007
Box 4 AV-3 On the “Dream of Jane Addams,” excerpts used for Susan B. Anthony Day program on WFMT, hosted by Studs Terkel, 2/15/1965. Discussion by Jessie Binford. Audiotape, Reel 1
Box 4 AV-4 On the “Dream of Jane Addams,” excerpts used for Susan B. Anthony Day program on WFMT, hosted by Studs Terkel, 2/15/1965. Discussion by Anna Lee Stewart. Audiotape, Reel 2
Box 4 AV-5 Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF), 50th Anniversary Celebration, Speaker: Coretta Scott King, 9/3/1965, Audiotape, Tape 1
Box 4 AV-6 Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF), 50th Anniversary Celebration, Speaker: Coretta Scott King, 9/3/1965, Audiotape, Tape 2
Box 4 AV-7 Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF), 50th Anniversary Celebration, Speaker: Coretta Scott King, 9/3/1965. Audiotape, Tape 3
Series 6: Photographs
Box 5 Photo 001 C.M. Johnson (12/15/1824-10/17/1894) [photocopy]
Box 5 Photo 002 Benjamin (“Pap”) Singleton [photocopy]
Box 5 Photo 003 Nell and Clark [photocopy]
Box 5 Photo 004 Josephine Johnson Mayo (4/6/1916) [photocopy]
Box 5 Photo 005 Harriet Broham–mother of Josephine Johnson, 10/31/1883 [photocopy]
Box 5 Photo 006 Gentry Johnson, Frances Johnson Gayden, Josephine Broham Johnson [photocopy]
Box 5 Photo 007 Infant, Frances Johnson Gayden (4/9/1876 ?) [photocopy]
Box 5 Photo 008 Unidentified [photocopy]
Box 5 Photo 009 Mother Frances Johnson Gayden, Fern Gayden, Clark Gayden, Nell Gayden, Virgina Gayden [photocopy]
Box 5 Photo 010 Unidentified [photocopy]
Box 5 Photo 011 Unidentified [photocopy]
Box 5 Photo 012 Unidentified [photocopy]
Box 5 Photo 013 Unidentified [photocopy]
Box 5 Photo 014 Mexico City, Mexico [n.d.] [photocopy]
Box 5 Photo 015 Unidentified [photocopy]
Box 5 Photo 016 Unidentified [photocopy]
Box 5 Photo 017 Unidentified [photocopy]
Box 5 Photo 018 ?, August 1974 [photocopy]
Box 5 Photo 019 Bull fight, 1966 [photocopy]
Box 5 Photo 020 Unidentified [photocopy]
Box 5 Photo 021 “My friend Fern, 1985,” (Ida Mae) [photocopy]
Box 5 Photo 022 WILPF ceremony at Jane Addams gravesite, 1972(?) [photocopy]
Box 5 Photo 023 WILPF ceremony at Jane Addams gravesite, 1972(?) [photocopy]
Box 5 Photo 024 Coretta Scott King at WILPF 50th anniversary, 1965 [photocopy]
Series 7: Memorabilia
Box 6 Folder 1 Plate from Grandville (Jean Gerard), “Les Fleurs Animés,” 1847. Marginalia by Fern Gayden (?)
Box 6 Folder 2 Fern Gayden’s personal stationery with address [n.d.], and Hall’s Tailor Service business card [Chicago, n.d.]
Box 6 Folder 3 Small poster, South Side Community Art Center, [n.d.]
Box 6 Folder 4 Alain Locke, “The Negro in Art,” first edition, first printing, 1940
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