Irene M. Gaines was born in 1892 in Florida. She died in Chicago on April 7, 1964.
Irene McCoy was from Ocala, Florida. Her older sister died while she was a child. She was taken to Chicago and raised by her mother after a family divorce. McCoy graduated from Wendell Phillips High School, and attended Fisk Normal School from 1905-1910. In 1914, she married Harris B. Gaines and they had two sons. Through her own experiences and those of others (particularly in the juvenile court system), she understood the needs and problems of Blacks in America. Gaines joined the War Camp Community Service during World War I and became the secretary of the first African-American branch of the YWCA in Chicago in 1920.
Gaines worked in the welfare department for Cook County from 1930 to 1945, and served as president of the Chicago Council of Negro Organizations (CCNO) from 1939 to 1953. Gaines saw the need for change through legislation. She was the first Black woman to run for a state legislative seat and was (in 1950) the first Black woman to run for the county commissioner’s office. Though she lost both elections, she gained much credibility. She received many awards for her efforts over the years, including the George Washington Honor Medal in 1958 and the Fisk University Distinguished Alumni Service Award in 1959.