Lucy Parsons (1853-1942) is a woman of history in my ongoing examination of “Strong Women.” Parsons, the “Queen of Anarchy,” was a woman of contradictions. The Chicago police department considered her “more dangerous than 1000 rioters.” surveilled her, arrested her, and fined her over and over. Yet, she refused to be silenced.
Lucy Parsons, nee Lucia Carter, was born a slave in Virginia around 1853. Lucia had “fairer” skin and was “comely.” Most likely she was the daughter of her master.
As the Civil War came to a close, she, her mother, and younger brother were among the slaves Dr. Taliaferro brought with him when he moved. The trip to rural McLennan county Texas was long and probably traumatic to Lucy as a twelve-year-old slave girl.
In 1866, Taliaferro moved to Tennessee to marry. Freed people in the Texas countryside suffered “a general reign of terror.” Lucia’s mother moved her family to Waco. The small town was safer for freed people.
By 1870, Lucia, a seamstress, lived with a freedman named Oliver Benton, formerly known as Oliver Gathings. Biographers presume he was the father of her stillborn child.
In the early 1870s, she met Albert Richard Parsons (1845-1887) a white man, a Republican Party operative and journalist, and a former Confederate calvary man. They married soon after.
Albert and Lucia
Miscegenation laws (laws forbidding marriage or cohabitation between white people and members of other races) of the time meant their marriage probably wasn’t legal. But Waco had a brief period of Republican rule that made Albert and Lucia believe they could live safely together there.
By 1873, Democrats regained control of Waco. Albert’s work of diligently registering Black voters got him “shot in the leg and threatened with lynching.” His and Lucia’s interracial marriage also put them in grave danger. They fled north.
During the trip north, Lucia changed her name to Lucy. They arrived in Chicago where Albert found a job as a printer at the Chicago Times.
The time was ripe for political upheaval. Millions of people were unemployed in the depression following the war. Labor laws of 1864 allowed American businesses to contract immigrant workers. Businesses expected employees to work long hours for substandard wages. But the introduction of socialist and anarchist ideology in the US radicalized the labor force.
One of the greatest mass strikes in US history took place during the summer of 1877. In July, Chicago’s rail workers battled with police. Albert spoke to crowds of up to twenty-five thousand people to promote peaceful ways of negotiating. This brought him to the front of the anarchist movement in Chicago.
The Chicago Times fired and blacklisted Albert from the printing trade in Chicago. Lucy supported the family as a seamstress, and, later, selling chickens she raised and sold coffee and tea.
She and her friend, Lizzie Swank, hosted meetings for the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union (ILGWU). Lucy wrote for many radical publications.
In 1883, she and Albert helped found the International Working People’s Association (IWPA).
She wrote her most famous paper around 1884 in which she urged the homeless to blow up the mansions of the rich, declaring: “Learn the use of explosives!”
Lucy was under constant surveillance. Police arrested her under the slightest suspicions that she knew where her husband was. Because she was a woman, authorities never charged her. They doubted she’d be convicted and feared her presence would soften the court toward the men.
The day the trial began, Albert walked into court and turned himself in.
It was a lengthy trial. October 1887, they sentenced the men to death by hanging. One man committed suicide while in prison. On appeals, two received life sentences, and one got fifteen years imprisonment.
Lucy toured the country to save the men’s lives. She raised funds and shared information about the unjust trial. Armed police barred her entrance to meeting halls wherever she went.
The leadership of the labor movement, Terence Powderly, took a firm stance against the Haymarket activists. He opposed strikes and radicalism and believed the government should make an example of the men. Despite his opposition, Lucy continued to speak about the injustice, getting more and more people interested in the Haymarket incident, and making a name for herself.
It was during this time that she created a false biography for herself. She claimed to be of mixed blood (Spanish or Mexican and Native American) and that her parents died when she was three and shipped to an uncle in Texas. She ignored the facts of her slavery. It’s said she often got confused herself about her false story, adding to the misinformation.
Lucy’s efforts couldn’t sway the courts and the Governor of Illinois. They would execute the four men, including Albert.
She brought her two children to see their father one last time. They arrested her and her two children. She was strip searched and left naked in a cell with her children.
They executed Albert and the three other men on November 11, 1887. Lucy and her children were released from jail shortly after the execution. She vowed that even though she feared she’d be executed too, she would continue the fight.
She Refused to be Silenced
Different factions in the labor movement responded to the upcoming 1890s elections. Many opted to reorganize. They wanted more reformative measures and to urge party members to support the Democratic Party.
Fierce in her belief that class hierarchy was the problem, she rejected the idea that reform measures where the rich continued to lord over the working class would provide relief. She refused to be silenced.
In October 1888, Lucy went to London. There she found a level of freedom that did not exist in the United States. From then on, she fought for the freedom of speech.
Returning home in Chicago, the city met her attempts with force and arrests. They fined her for selling copies of her pamphlet Anarchism on the street.
In the 1890s, the movement continued to change and Lucy opposed their take on free love. She criticized the movement’s attacks on marriage and family. Her speeches and attacks on this alienated her from the leaders of the anarchist movement.
Before Chicago would hold its planned Continental Congress of labor in June 1905, another convention was held. It drew together anarchists, syndicalists, and trade unionists. It was the founding convention of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). The class conscious perspective of the IWW mirrored Lucy’s political beliefs. The only woman to speak, she spoke passionately at the convention. She believed the IWW’s militant strikes and direct action ideology was the only way for the working class to change the class structure. She was the second woman to join this new organization.
In 1905 she took over as editor of the IWW’s paper, The Liberator. She wrote about famous women, the history of the working class, and about a woman’s right to divorce, remarry, and have access to birth control.
From 1907 to 1908, there were huge economic crashes, Lucy organized against hunger and unemployment. Working with the IWW her efforts and demonstrations pressured the state government to work on a decentralization of hunger and unemployment policy.
Over time Lucy became disillusioned with the IWW as they moved away from the idea of revolution.
In 1925, Lucy discovered the newly formed Communist Party shared her belief in revolution from a perspective of class consciousness. She began working with them and joined the party in 1939.
Working with the coalition for International Labor Defense, she joined in the defense of the Scottsboro Boys and Angelo Herndon. Shereturned to the south and worked on the Tom Mooney case and on other issues involving race.
Lucy continued to fight oppression for her entire life. She inspired crowds at the International Harvester in 1941, her last major appearance.
An accidental fire killed Lucy Parsons on March 7, 1942. She was 89. Her lover, George Markstall, died the next day from wounds he suffered trying to save her.
The FBI confiscated Lucy’s library of 1,500 books on sex, socialism, and anarchy along with all her personal papers. This is part of the reason so few know about her today.
The Legacy of Lucy Parsons
Much of what we know today would have been a mish-mash of lies and mythology if not for the biography Goddess of Anarchy: The Life and Times of Lucy Parsons, American Radical written by University of Texas historian, Jacqueline Jones.
A Chicago anti-fascist group called Black Rose uses a drawing of Parsons as its symbol. In Boston, there’s the Lucy Parsons Center, a radical bookstore and meeting place. A Chicago-based group called Lucy Parsons Labs is campaigning for digital rights and is harnessing data to examine issues such as police conduct. Finally, the city named a Chicago park after Parsons in 2004.
Authorities of her time tried to silence Lucy Parsons. She was a bundle of contradictions and could be brutal to people she identified as being against her. She ignored her family of birth, devoted herself to the cause her husband died for, and fought her entire life for freedom of speech and workers’ rights. A strong woman, she refused to be silenced.