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Catherine Gayle Williams papers

Identifier: IWA0242

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Scope and Contents

The Catherine Gayle Williams papers date from 1942 to 1991, including some undated items from approximately the 1910s, and measure 12.3 linear inches. The papers are arranged in seven series: Biographical information, Education, Racial concerns, Retirement, Writings, Photographs, and Delta Sigma Theta.

The Biographical information series (1942-1991) includes a taped interview with Williams by David A. Smith. A copy of his master's thesis based on these interviews is filed with printed works in the Iowa Womens Archives Materials relating to awards Williams received and a scrapbook (disbound) of events in her life, which includes photographs, complete the series.

Williams's 1965 master's thesis, "Attitudes toward Adoptions in the Negro Community of Des Moines"; papers she wrote as a student; and some class notes comprise the Education series (1960-1965,1982).

The Racial concerns series(1968-1970 and undated) encompasses varied topics, including seminar and workshop materials, bibliographies, and the "Racial Ethnic Census Report" of the Iowa Public Schools, 1968-l969.

In 1981 Williams was honored for her thirty-two years of service at the Iowa Department of Social Services. The Retirement series (1981) includes letters and articles of tribute to Williams.

The Writings series (1968-1982 and undated) comprises reports Williams wrote and lectures she delivered.

The Photographs series ([1910s], 1940s-1980s and undated) contains photographs of Williams, her family, and friends.

Williams was a member of the Phi chapter of the Delta Sigma Theta sorority, a prominent national black sorority, founded in 1913 at Howard University. The Delta Sigma Theta series (1947-1989, scattered) includes materials about the national organization and the Phi chapter in Des Moines which was organized in 1923. Copies of The Delta newsletter and journal complete the series.


  • Creation: 1910-1991


Conditions Governing Access

The papers are open for research.

Conditions Governing Use

Copyright held by the donor has been transferred to the University of Iowa.

However, copyright status for some collection materials may be unknown. Transmission or reproduction of materials protected by U.S. Copyright Law (Title 17, U.S.C.) beyond that allowed by fair use requires the written permission of the copyright owner. Works not in the public domain cannot be commercially exploited without permission of the copyright owners. Responsibility and potential liability based on copyright infringement for any use rests exclusively and solely with the user. Users must properly acknowledge the Iowa Women’s Archives, The University of Iowa Libraries, as the source of the material. For further information, visit

Biographical / Historical

Catherine Gayle Williams was born on November 21, 1914 in Des Moines, Iowa, the fourth of Godfrey and Ethel Wells Williams's seven children. Although she graduated as valedictorian of her class from North High School in 1932, she could not afford to go to college. She pursued, instead, the first of her two careers, tap dancing. Williams began dancing in Chicago, toured in a number of large eastern cities, lived in California for four years, where she appeared in several movies, and in 1940 toured with the Hot Mikado in which Bill "Bojangles" Robinson starred. During this time she married Charles Atkinson, a dancer. They were divorced in 1944.

Williams meanwhile attended the Cortez Peters Business College in Chicago (1942-1943). For a brief time she worked in an office and, with a friend, started a short-lived dress shop. When her parents became ill, she returned to Des Moines in 1947. Williams took a job as a secretary with the Polk County Welfare Department and advanced to Public Assistance Worker II by 1955. She thus began her second career, in the field of social work.

After thirteen years of part-time study at Drake University, she graduated in 1961 with a degree in psychology and sociology. In 1962 she was appointed to the position of Public Welfare Supervisor. The following year she took a two-year "educational leave" to attend the School of Social Work at the State University of Iowa (now the University of Iowa). She and Richard Williams were married in 1963. He died in 1995.

In 1965 at the age of fifty-one, she graduated and returned to the Polk County Welfare Department, soon rising to the position of Social Work Supervisor IV. From 1975 to 1981 Williams was the Deputy Commissioner of the Iowa Department of Social Services, and for a six-month period in 1979 served as the acting Commissioner. At the time she retired in 1981, after thirty-two years of service, she was the highest-ranking black official in the state government. Throughout her career she focused her concerns on the family and family relationships, initiating a number of innovative programs in the Department of Social Services.

After her retirement she became a consultant in social and management systems for Johnson and Williams Associates. Williams has served on numerous boards and committees and has been honored extensively for her contributions to the field of social work. In 1980 she was named to the Iowa Women's Hall of Fame and cited as Iowa's Social Worker of the Year. The following year she received an Alumni Distinguished Service Award from Drake University and an honorary degree from Simpson College. In 1990 she was awarded the YWCA/Mary Louise Smith Racial Justice Award and the University of Iowa School of Social Work Distinguished Alumnae Award.


12.30 linear inches

6 audiocassettes [AC334-AC339], Photographs in boxes 1-2 boxes

Language of Materials



Professional dancer and deputy commissioner of the Iowa Department of Social Services.

Method of Acquisition

The papers (donor no. 336) were donated by Catherine Williams in 1996.

Related Materials

Verda Williams papers (IWA): The Verda Williams papers contain three interviews onaudio cassettes [AC392, AC393, and AC394] with Catherine Williams conducted forthe video "Black Des Moines: Voices Seldom Heard."

Natalie S. Brody, 1996; Robert Jett, 1998.
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Script of description
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Repository Details

Part of the Iowa Women's Archives Repository

100 Main Library
University of Iowa Libraries
Iowa City IA 52242 IaU
319-335-5900 (Fax)