Note: Interest in the long life of labor agitator and anarchist Lucy Parsons has been rising for some time as the labor movement has begun re-embracing its radical roots and during the spontaneous mass actions around the country represented by the Occupy Movement a few years ago. Despite her purposefully obscured racial identity, she has also inspired Black women of the Black Lives Matters movement. A 2017 biography, Goddess of Anarchy: The Life and Times of Lucy Parsons, American Radical by Jacqueline Jones has ramped that interest even higher. The book, based on new research and discoveries, challenges the commonly accepted story of her origins with mixed Mexican, Native American, and mulatto Texas roots and identifies her as originally a Virginia born slave.
Jacqueline Jones's biography broke new ground in identifying Lucy Parsons's origins.
There were hard times in Chicago on January 17, 1915. Hell, there were hard times across the country. The nation had never really recovered from the Panic of 1910, and then plunged again into a sharp recession that had been dragging on since 1913. Business activity had fallen off a staggering 25%. Unemployment was not yet measured accurately, but was rife especially in the great industrial cities like Chicago. Hardest hit were the armies of casual laborers who in the best of times floated from temporary work to temporary work, the mass of unskilled and semi-skilled industrial workers, immigrants, and the flood of displaced farm and small-town workers who flooded the city looking for non-existent work.
On top of the winter of 1914-15 was one of the harshest since the turn of the century. Tens of thousands of the ragged homeless roamed the streets, their bodies found frozen in the soot-grimed snow. Some found refuge in train stations and even police precincts and fire houses on the most brutal nights. Soup kitchens could not keep up with demand. In addition to the bums and hobos the city was accustomed to seeing even in good times, there were more and more women and children among the homeless as wave after wave of evictions hit the slum districts. Newspapers wrung their hands—not so much at the plight of the poor, but at the impositions their suffering placed on respectable citizens. Something had to be done and one woman, Lucy Parsons, knew damn well what to do.
Parsons was one formidable woman with decades of working class struggle behind her and a reputation that literally terrified the powers that be. Just a few years later the Chicago Police would report that the then septuagenarian was “more dangerous than a thousand rioters.”IWW artist Carlos Cortez reflected the ethnic pride of many Mexican-Americans in Lucy Parson's claim of Hispanic origins in the 1986 Spanish Language lino-cut poster created for the centennial of the Haymarket Affair.
Her exact origins were obscure and made intentionally murkier by her own efforts. Lucia Eldine Gonzalez—the birth name she claimed—was said to born somewhere in Texas around 1853, almost surely in slavery. She was apparently of mixed ethnic and racial origins. Surely, she was part Black and lived among Blacks. In the immediate post-Civil War Era she was married to or lived with an ex-slave named Oliver Gathings.
Around 1870 she met Albert Parsons, a dashing former Confederate soldier who had become a passionate Reconstruction Republican. He edited Republican newspapers in Texas, supported full suffrage for Freedmen, and railed against night riders like the emerging Ku Klux Klan. He was under constant threat to his life, had been beaten, kidnapped, and shot in the leg in various incidents. Lovely young Lucy became Parson’s fearless ally and then lover. She abandoned Gathings to be with him and their relationship only fueled anti-miscegenation rage.
In 1872 the couple fled for their lives and settled in Chicago in 1873 where Parsons eventually found work as a typographer for the Chicago News. Lucy worked as a seamstress and dressmaker. They lived as man and wife although no marriage documents have ever been found. Due to bitter social ostracism and criminal liability she denied Black heritage and explained her brown skin as the result of Mexican and Indian—Creek—lineage in addition to White ancestry. This apparently fooled few people, either Black or White. She was regularly denounced as a Mulatto in her lifetime.Former Confederate soldier turned Texas Reconstruction Radical Republican turned Chicago anarchist labor leader Albert Parsons did cut a dashing figure and together they made a stunning couple as they moved together to the forefront of the workers' movement in the city.
Both of the Parsons rapidly rose to leadership in Chicago’s working class movements. Albert was active in his craft union and the Central Labor Council. Becoming increasingly radicalized both joined the infant Socialist Labor Party (SLP) in 1876. He would run for City Council under it banner.
When the Great Railway Strike of 1877 swept into the city, Albert emerged as an important leader and spoke to crowds of 25,000 or more. While not giving up previous affiliations, both joined the International Working People’s Association—the so-called Anarchist First International and became its most influential English language leaders in a movement dominated in the city by Germans.
Albert was black balled from work at his trade eventually becoming editor of the English language anarchist paper Alarm! Lucy opened a dressmaking shop to support her husband and a young son but also became a leader in efforts to organize the needle trades and other women dominated occupations.
In 1886 the IWPA became the principle organizer in Chicago of the May 1st national Eight Hour Day Strike. As many as 350,000 workers walked off their jobs in the first three days of May making Chicago the effective epicenter of the national movement. There were also coincidently major on-going strikes, including one by thousands of workers at the McCormack Reaper Works. Albert was one of the speakers to a rally of strikers there on May 3 when police opened fire on the crowd killing four workers and wounding scores. At the same time Lucy was leading women garment workers on strike.
Both helped publicize and promote a protest rally at the Haymarket on the rainy evening of May 4, but neither was able to be at the event. None-the-less when a bomb went off amid charging police Albert was among the anarchists sought by police. Alerted to the danger, Albert managed to escape to Wisconsin where he hid out for several days. Lucy was arrested and closely questioned, but released. Eventually Albert returned to the city to turn himself in to stand trial with six other anarchists for the riot.
Lucy visited Albert in jail daily where she took dictation of his memoirs and gathered profiles of all of the other defendants. These she published in pamphlets as part of her relentless campaign to support the accused. She raised money for the defense, spoke at numerous rallies and meetings, and wrote articles and letters that made the trial an international cause celeb.
Four Haymarket Martyrs including Albert Parsons went to the gallows at Cook County Jail while Lucy was held naked in cell to prevent her attendance.
Parsons and her children went to visit her husband one last time, but she was arrested, stripped naked, and thrown into a cell at Cook County Jail on November 11, 1887 as Albert was lead to the gallows singing her favorite ballad Annie Laurie in his clear tenor voice. When it was over she was allowed to go home. But she first vowed to the press to continue the fight.
Lucy lost her dress shop and was reduced to stark poverty after Albert’s death. Supporters formed the Pioneer Aid and Support Society which raised money for the Monument at the Haymarket Martyr’s grave site at German Waldheim Cemetery and also provided Parsons with a meager $8 a month subsistence stipend.
Parsons continued to work to preserve the memory of her husband and his co-defendants and to advance the causes of anarchism and a militant labor movement. She sold the pamphlet biographies and later a handsomely mounted book, The Autobiography of Lucy Parsons which consolidated them all with steel engravings into one volume to support herself and her work. She also made speeches and attempted to lecture. But the relentless Chicago Police broke up her meetings and threatened hall owners who might rent to her for her lectures and repeatedly arrested her when she tried to sell her pamphlets and books on the street.
The harassment just made Parson’s more determined and made her a leading voice for free speech as well as for worker’s rights. In 1893 the courts finally ruled that even anarchists had free speech rights although police harassment of her continued.
Despite these travails, Parsons grew in stature world-wide. In 1888 she was invited to London to address the Socialist League of England on a program in which she shared the dais with the Russian anarchist Prince Peter Kropotkin. During the same trip she was invited to become a contributor the leading French radical periodical, Les Temps Nouveaux.
The same year back in Chicago she became a harsh critic of labor leaders who threw their lot in with the Democratic Party in hopes of moderate reforms and “practical” concessions. Parsons believed that such half-measures not only cheated the working class, but delayed the systematic revolution that would abolish capitalism once and for all.
Previously a trade unionist Parsons looked at the open class warfare engendered by disputes like the Homestead Steel Strike in Pennsylvania and in the silver mines of Coeur D’Alene, Idaho and concluded that they were harbingers of successful social revolution and that industrial unionism was the strongest organizational tool of the working class. Parsons expounded these views in Freedom: A Revolutionary Anarchist-Communist Monthly which she founded and co-edited. She found her views confirmed in the Pullman Strike of 1894.
Her recognized leadership among American anarchists was challenged by a younger rival, Emma Goldman, after Goldman emerged from prison for her part in her lover Alexander Berkman’s attempted assassination of steel baron Andrew Carnegie’s partner and right-hand man Henry Clay Frick. Goldman took to the lecture platform and often spoke to middle-class and upper-class liberal audiences for money, which Parsons considered a betrayal. Worse, Goldman strayed from single minded attention to the class struggle to embrace many issues of personal freedom including free love.
Although Parsons was resolutely feminist in advocating for the complete emancipation of women and their equality with men in work and social arrangements, she felt that free love was both a bourgeois indulgence and a threat to the family as the bulwark of strength for workers of both sexes. The two bitterly sniped at each other in their writings and occasionally in public confrontations for years.From the Official Proceedings of the Founding Convention of the IWW. Lucy Parsons is listed as an aye vote to establish the union. Like Mother Jones she attended the convention as an individual and not as a delegate of a union. It is fascinating to speculate what those two labor agitators might have shared with each other. And it may not have been the first time their paths crossed. Both were plying the same trade--seamstress and dressmaker at the same time in Chicago and both had begun their associations with the labor movement--Mother Jones with the Knights of Labor and Parsons with the trade unionists.
In 1905 Parsons attended the Continental Congress of the Working Class which united socialists, anarchists, syndicalists and trade unionists in a new militant organization that almost perfectly mirrored Parsons’s views—the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). She took out the second Red Card issued to a woman and joined the likes of radical industrial unionists William D. “Big Bill” Haywood of the Western Federation of Miners and William Trautman of the Brewery Workers, Daniel De Leon of the SLP (much changed since her early membership of that organization years before), and Eugene V. Debs former leader of the American Railway Union and founder of the Socialist Party (SP.)
Although first De Leon in a 1906 huff and much more quietly Debs some years later departed the IWW for its refusal to engage in electoral political action, that was just fine with Parsons who had no faith in either reformism or politics. Although she never was employed by the union, she voluntarily worked for it and promoted its goals in public appearances and in a new periodical, The Liberator supported by and supporting of the union which made women’s equality issues a major focus.
During and after the string of panics and recessions that began in 1907, Parsons became particularly interested in the plight of the unemployed. In San Francisco Parsons and IWW members assumed leadership of the Unemployment Committee which began staging mass meetings and marches to demand public works projects to put people to work. When police threatened Parsons famously led one parade with hundreds of women. Almost two years of agitation the unemployed of the city gained some concessions from the city.
Parsons had always been leery of reformist demands like public works programs, but came to see how the mass struggle for them emboldened the working class, gave it experience in self-organization, and could be a pathway to ultimate revolution.
Back in Chicago during the cruel winter of 1914, Parsons had a model and the experience to stage a similar campaign. Just the announcement of the march set the city nabobs on edge. After all, Parson’s had never minced her words. The mighty Chicago Tribune quoted her as recommending during the terrible depression of 1882-85:
Let every dirty, lousy tramp arm himself with a revolver or a knife, and lay in wait on the steps of the palaces of the rich and stab or shoot the owners as they come out. Let us kill them without mercy, and let it be a war of extermination.
As handbills advertising the planned march spread around the poorest precincts of the city and announcements were printed in the active and multi-lingual radical press stirred up so much excitement that Ralph Chaplin, the editor of the IWW’s publication Solidarity, was moved to furnish an anthem for the march. He already had some verses that he had penned while working with Mother Jones during the bitter 1912-’13 Kanawha County, West Virginia coal miner’s strike. He polished them up and added a new, particularly incendiary verse:
Is there aught we hold in common with the greedy parasite,
Who would lash us into serfdom and would crush us with his might?
Is there anything left to us but to organize and fight?
He set it to music and rushed copies to the printer to be sung by the marchers. Solidarity Forever became not only the theme song for the IWW, but the great anthem of the whole labor movement, although more conservative unions would expunge that verse and modify others when they used it.
As many as 15,000 of the unemployed and their labor movement supporters marched behind Lucy Parsons on January 17, 1915 demanding immediate relief. Parsons, naturally, was arrested.Lucy Parson's mug shot after her arrest for leading the 1915 march of the unemployed in Chicago.
The impressive success of that march encouraged more moderate members of the labor movement to act. The IWW’s bitter conservative craft union rival the AFL, the Socialist Party, and Jane Adams Hull House organized a second massive demonstration on February 12. It was a one-two punch, the labor equivalent of bad cop/good cop. The interventions of the relative moderates gave city officials an opening to announce immediate plans to decentralize emergency relief including soup kitchens and shelters as well a beginning projects to hire the unemployed for everything from hand shoveling snow from city streets and pot hole repair to building sidewalks and paving previously muddy side streets. None of which would have happened if Lucy Parsons hadn’t scared the crap out of them first.
Within three years Ralph Chaplin would be one of the 101 IWW leaders tried in Chicago for war-time subversion under the Espionage Act. Like all the rest, and 64 others tried at Leavenworth, Kansas he was sentenced to prison and served four years of a twenty-year sentence.
Parson’s rival Emma Goldman was one of the aliens rounded up in the post-war Red Scare and was deported on the so-called Bolshevik Arc to the Soviet Union.
Parson’s turned her attention to defense work. By 1924 she had drifted from the IWW because its General Defense Committee would not extend its support to Communists. She also began to believe that the classic anarchism that she had long advanced had failed to ignite revolution but that the Soviet experience showed a new way. It was not an overnight thing.
In 1925 she began working with the National Committee of the International Labor Defense which was backed by the Communists and worked on behalf of unjustly accused African Americans such as the Scottsboro Boys and Angelo Herndon.
During yet another Depression the now 80-year-old returned to agitating for the unemployed and advocated the formation of unemployed unions. She spoke regularly at Chicago’s Bughouse Square free speech forums where a kid named Studs Terkle listened with rapt attention to her still fiery speeches. The Chicago Police still wasted no opportunity to harass her and friends had to always be ready to bail her out on petty charges.
Despite the estrangement from the official IWW and her increasing closeness to the Communists, she remained attached to the social circle around the IWW headquarters and local branch. She attended socials and picnics, and attended educational meetings although she was no longer invited to speak.
Young Industrial Worker editor and organizer Fred W. Thompson, who also was a Socialist Party member, got to know her and admire her despite their political difference. Fred, who was my friend and mentor in the IWW, spoke of her fondly and much later helped Carolyn Ashbaugh research her ground-breaking biography, Lucy Parsons: American Revolutionary and shepherded it to print by the old Socialist publisher Charles H. Kerr & Co. Ashbaugh’s book was recently reissued by Haymarket Books.
The recent Haymarket Books reissue of Carolyn Ashbaugh's 1977 biography.
Although records have never been found, some historians believe that Parson’s finally officially joined the Communist Party in 1939 after years of resisting putting herself under rigorous party discipline. Others are not so sure. When she died the Daily Worker’s extensive and laudatory obituary failed to claim her as a member.
Her death was particularly tragic and horrifying. She burned to death along with her mentally disabled adult son in a fire at her house in the Avondale neighborhood of Chicago’s Northwest Side on March 7, 1942 at the presumed age of 89. She was by then nearly blind.
In a final indignity, her irreplaceable library of over 1,500 volumes of labor and anarchist books along with all of her personal papers and memorabilia of her long career which had survived the fire with only minor damage, was seized by Chicago police and immediately destroyed.This simple stone marks the ashes of Lucy Parsons near the Haymarket Memorial and the remains of her husband and other Haymarket Martyrs. They are all surrounded by scores of anarchist, socialist, Communist, and labor activists including Lucy's rival Emma Goldman.
Lucy was laid to rest near her husband and the Haymarket Martyrs monument. A few feet away the ashes of Emma Goldman rest beneath another stone and she is surrounded by generations of unionists and radicals. Others like Joe Hill have had all or part of their ashes scattered there.
The site of the house she died in now lies beneath the Kennedy Expressway. Almost as if the city was still trying to expunge her from memory.