In the 1920s, the Chicago Police Department described Lucy Parsons as “More dangerous than a thousand rioters.”
I hope even now to live to see the day when the first dawn of the new era of labor will have arisen, when capitalism will be a thing of the past, and the new industrial republic, the commonwealth of labor, shall be in operation.”
— Lucy Parsons
Placed in a larger historical context, Lucy Parsons is an example of a controversial radical woman who appears infrequently if at all in the historical record although she helped to write it. In the context of her late Nineteenth, early Twentieth Century life time, she grappled with the obstacles of being a woman, a labor movement radical, and being married to an equally controversial man.
Leaving Albert Parsons out of an account of Lucy Parson’s life and adventures is to skew her life and its contribution to women’s history. Husbands and wives impact each other and their marriage imprints history for better or worse, and in the case of the Parsons partnership, Lucy and Albert Parsons mutually benefitted each other. They also conducted their individual lives and deaths in keeping with their ideals. Albert Parsons died at the end of a hangman’s noose for his supposed part in the Haymarket Riot and for nearly 70 years Lucy Parsons fought for the rights of poor and disenfranchised people against what she believed to be an oppressive industrial economic system. Her struggle required immense courage during a time of racist and sexist sentiment and in a time when even radical Americans believed that a woman should be confined in her home and her kitchen.
Albert Parsons, Before He Met Lucy Ella Gonzales Waller
Born in Montgomery, Alabama, on June 24, 1848, Albert Richard Parsons was one of ten children of the owner of a shoe and leather factory. Both of his parents died when he was just five years old and Albert’s older brother William and Esther, a slave, helped raise him in Texas. After he attended school for about a year, Albert went to work as an apprentice at the Galveston Daily News. While still a teenager, Albert served in the Confederate Army including a stint in Parson’s Mounted Volunteers.
After the Civil War, Albert settled in Texas, attending college at what is now Baylor University and working on several other newspapers. He became an activist for former slaves and a Republican overseer of Reconstruction which earned him the admiration and respect of the former slaves he championed and the hatred of his fellow southerners and the Ku Klux Klan. In what seemed to him a natural crossover, he also became interested in the rights of workers.
In 1869, Albert worked as a traveling correspondent and business agent for the Houston Daily Telegraph and during this time he met Lucy Ella Gonzales Waller. They were married in 1872, and Lucy Parsons, a political force in her own right joined her destiny with her political mentor and partner. Their marriage not only produced an interesting combination of political ideas, it also committed what southerners, especially Ku Klux Klan members, called miscegenation.
The South enforced both legal and social laws against miscegenation or racial mixing through marriage or cohabitation. That Lucy Ella Gonzales Waller, the daughter of a Creek Indian and a Mexican woman, married Albert Parsons, still a white man despite his unorthodox ideas, did not set well with the Klan and their ideological sympathizers. Shortly after their marriage, the Parsons prudently moved to Chicago.
Lucy Ella Gonzales Waller Matures and Marries Albert Parsons
Although the early years of Lucy Ella Gonzales Waller are shrouded in mystery, the historical record revealed that she came from African America, Native American, and Mexican ancestry. Since she was born in Texas around 1853, her parents were probably slaves. Lucy quickly learned to function in her prejudiced society by using different names. Often giving Lucy Gonzales as her name, she used her Mexican ancestry to explain her dark skin tone instead of acknowledging her African American roots.
While Lucy was living with Oliver Gathings, a former slave, she met Albert Parsons and soon she and Albert were married, although their marriage probably wasn’t legal because of the miscegenation laws of the time. In 1872, shortly after their marriage, the Parsons left Texas because of their political involvement and their interracial marriage. Four years before the formal ending of Reconstruction in 1876 when all federal troops left, the South methodically instituted restrictive Jim Crow segregation laws. Albert worked tirelessly to register Black voters and his enemies shot him in the leg and threatened to lynch him. In 1873, Albert and Lucy Parsons moved north to Chicago to what they hoped would be a better life. Albert began work as a printer for the Chicago Times.
The Parsons Become Labor Activists
Life in Chicago didn’t provide a safe haven for the Parsons. They arrived in Chicago during the Panic of 1873, a financial collapse and depression that lingered on for years. Causes of the Panic of 1873 include post Civil War inflation, over speculation especially in railroads, a large trade deficit, declining bank reserves, and European economic problems stemming from the Franco-Prussian War. Chicago and Boston also suffered the financial losses from devastating fires, Chicago in 1871 and Boston in 1872.
As Albert’s tenure as a printer continued, so did the labor troubles of the United States. A law called the Contract Labor law of 1864 permitted American businesses to contract and bring immigrant laborers into the country which created a surplus of unskilled workers in cities like Chicago and lowered wages. Socialist and anarchist ideology also gained a toe hold in the United States and began to radicalize its labor force.
Albert and Lucy Parsons became labor activists. In 1877, the Baltimore Ohio Railroad cut worker’s wages igniting a nationwide strike and motivating railroad workers all over the country to join picket lines. Reaction to the railroad strike rippled through Chicago in the summer of 1877 when Chicago railroad workers took up the cause with a vengeance, derailing an engine and baggage cars fighting sporadic battles with the police.
Motivated by the plight of striking workers, Albert embraced an activist role, taking time from his work and family life to advocate peaceful ways for workers to negotiate. Soon the small number of workers he initially addressed grew to crowds of more than 25,000 people and Albert stood at center of the Chicago anarchist movement. Lucy stood by his side both literally and figuratively.
Albert and Lucy Parsons joined the Socialist Labor Party in 1876, and they were active members of the International Working People’s Association or the First International which supported racial and gender equality. Albert Parsons also became the editor of the Alarm, the anarchist weekly journal that the International Working People’s Association published.
As Albert’s labor activities and speech making increased so did his fame and eventually the Chicago Times fired him for supporting striking workers and the printers’ unions in Chicago black listed him. Lucy Parsons opened a dress shop to support Albert and their two children, Albert Jr. and Lulu Eda.
Like Twentieth Century women, Lucy found herself jugging her family responsibilities and her career. She chaired meetings for the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union with her friend Lizzie Swank, and she began to write for several radical publications.
Both her friends and enemies considered Lucy Parsons a more dangerous radical than Albert, because of her outspoken speeches and writing defending the rights of poor people. She also challenged the the establishment because she refused to be confined to the role of a homemaker but expanded her resume to include militant and radical woman.
Albert Parsons and the Haymarket Uprising
On May 1, 1886, Albert and Lucy Parsons and their two children, led 80,000 people down Michigan Avenue to support the eight hour work day, and this parade is considered to be the first May Day parade. The International Working Peoples Association organized a campaign for the eight hour day and on May 1, 1886, a national strike of American workers began in support of an eight hour day.
Over the next few days over 340,000 male and female workers participated in the strike with more than 25 percent of them hailing from Chicago. The unity of the Chicago workers so surprised Chicago employers that they granted the workers a shorter work day. Thrilled, Lucy Parsons proclaimed that the United States was ripe for a mass worker’s revolution.
On May 3, 1886, police fired into a crowd of unarmed strikers at the McCormick Harvest Works in Chicago, wounding many strikers and killing four of them. The Radicals called a meeting for May 4, 1886, in Haymarket Square to discuss the situation. Many versions of the story say that the Chicago police fired on a peaceful rally and an unknown person threw a bomb, while some modern labor historians like Timothy Messer-Kruse argue that the anarchists had a premeditated plan and provoked the confrontation. However it started, a riot broke out and one officer was killed and several officers and workers were wounded.
Over the next few days, police scoured Chicago, searching for and arresting any anarchists and radicals they could capture. They raided homes, offices, and meeting halls of suspected radicals and Albert Parsons had not been in Haymarket Square that day, but the police accused him as one of the eight men responsible for the bombing. Albert Parsons went into hiding, moving to Waukesha, Wisconsin, and remaining there until June 21, 1886.
Lucy Parsons Campaigns for Clemency
.Both proud and angry that Albert Parsons believed in his anarchism enough to die for it, Lucy launched into a campaign for clemency. She toured the United States on a speaking tour, distributing fliers and pamphlets about the unjust arrests and trials, and raising funds to help the defendants. Armed policemen greeted Lucy had almost every place she visited, barring her admission to meeting halls and monitoring her speech and actions.
As well as outside threats, Lucy Parsons also had to fight a battle within the labor movement. She had belonged to the Knights of Labor for over ten years and she vehemently disagreed with Terence Powderly, the leader of the Knights. Terence Powderly opposed strikes and often discouraged Knights of Labor members from participating in them and he strongly disagreed with radicalism. He believed that the government should make an example of the Haymarket defendants and the Knights of Labor firmly stood against the Haymarket defendants.
Despite these setbacks, Lucy continued her speaking tour, sparking more interest in the Haymarket case and becoming more and more famous in her own right.
The Haymarket Trial and the Execution of Albert Parsons
The police kept Lucy Parsons under constant surveillance and whenever they had the slightest suspicion she knew Albert’s whereabouts, they arrested her. Although they never charged Lucy with conspiracy in the bombing, the authorities did arrest and charge Oscar Neebe, Adolph Fisher, August Spies, Louis Lingg, Michael Schwab, Samuel Fielden, Carl Engle, and her husband Albert. Eventually, Albert turned himself in to stand with his fellow defendants and they were brought to trial, even though many of them were not even at Haymarket Square at the time of the riot.
Corporate lawyer William Perkins Black defended the anarchists, and witnesses testified that none of the eight defendants had thrown the bomb. The jury found them all guilty. Oscar Neebe was sentenced to 15 years in prison and the others drew death sentences. Samuel Fielden and Michael Schwab asked for clemency and eventually Illinois Governor John Peter Altgeld pardoned them and they were released from prison on June 26, 1893. Albert Parsons could have been pardoned as well, but he didn’t petition Governor Altgeld for a pardon because he felt that asking for a pardon meant admitting guilt and he had committed no crime.
The day before his death, Albert Parsons wrote a letter to his two young children. Dated Dungeon No. 7, Cook County Jail, Chicago, Illinois, November 9, 1887, the letter read:
“To my Darling, Precious Little Children Albert R. Parsons, Jr. and his sister Lulu Eda Parsons:
As I write this word, I blot your names with a tear. We will never meet again. Oh, my children, how deeply, dearly your Papa loves you. We show our love by living for our loved ones, we also prove our love by dying when necessary for them. Of my life and the course of my unnatural and cruel death, you will hear from others.
Your Father is a self-offered sacrifice upon the altar of liberty and happiness. To you I leave the legacy of an honest name and duty done.Preserve it. Emulate it. Be true to yourselves, you cannot be false to others. Be industrious, sober, and cheerful.
Your mother! She is the grandest, noblest of women. Love, honor, and obey her. My children, my precious ones, I request you to read this parting message on each recurring anniversary of my death in remembrance of him who dies not alone and for you, but for the children yet unborn. Bless you my darlings! Farewell,
Albert R. Parsons”
On November 10, 1887, while in his jail cell, Louis Lingg committed suicide by exploding a dynamite cap in his mouth and on November 11, 1887, Albert Parsons, August Spies, Adolph Fisher and Carl Engle were hanged.
Lucy brought her two children. Lulu Etta and Albert Jr., to see their father one last time. The police arrested her and her children and took them to jail. They forced Lucy to strip and left her naked in a cold cell with her children while they executed her husband. When they finally released her, she vowed to continue her fight against injustice even though the authorities had killed her husband and she feared that they would kill her too.
Life For Lucy After Albert Parson’s Execution
After Albert Parsons was executed, Lucy and her children lived in near poverty. Lucy received eight dollars a week plus two dollars each for her two children from the Pioneer Aid and Support Association, a group created to support the families of the Haymarket defendants. She continued with her dress making business, but her political causes took up increasing amounts of her time.
Lucy’s radical beliefs that she expressed in public speeches and anarchist literature prompted the police to arrest her many times. She didn’t believe in labor reform. She held a firm belief in class consciousness as the pivotal problem in the oppression of the workers of her time. She believed that voluntary associations of workers supporting and enforcing common regulations would bring equality to workers. She began to believe more in voluntary associations or syndicalism than she did anarchy.
In October 1888, Lucy traveled to London to give a speech before the Socialist League of England and when she returned to Chicago she compared the freedom she had encountered in England with the suppression of free speech she found at home. Police and other officials in Chicago continuously tried to squelch her efforts to speak out for anarchism and to sell copies of her pamphlet Anarchism on the streets of Chicago. She believed that freedom of speech was a fundamental human right and even after Judge Tuley ruled in 1889 that anarchists too had the right to freedom of speech, she spent the rest of her life fighting the forces who wanted to eliminate her voice.
Lucy Parsons, Agitator but No Longer An Anarchist?
By 1890, increased technology and the mechanization of the workplace had vastly displaced craft unionism, and Lucy saw the importance of expanding the boundaries of the labor movement to international parameters. In 1891, she and her colleague Lizzy Holmes edited a newspaper called Freedom: A Revolutionary Anarchist-Communist Monthly, in which she predicted that revolution was drawing nearer. The major labor struggles of 1892, including those at the Carnegie steel mills in Pennsylvania and the silver mines of Coeur D'Alene, Idaho, reinforced her opinion.
In 1894, Pullman workers went on strike after the company fired their organizers. At first Eugene Debs and the American Railway Union successfully guided them, until President Grover Cleveland crushed the strike. Again, this labor dispute reinforced Lucy’s opinion that the revolution advanced even nearer. She also agitated among the miners of the Spruce Valley Coal Company, the unemployed workers of Coxey’s Army as they prepared to march on Washington and she joined in the boycott of State Street stores during the Chicago Teamster’s strike.
Albert Parsons had given up his life for the anarchist movement, so Lucy Parsons continued to defend the anarchist ideas. Then in the 1890s a major rift opened between Lucy and some of the other movement leaders, especially Emma Goldman. One of their disagreements centered on the issue of free love. Lucy believed that marriage and children were a necessary part of the human condition. She criticized the anarchist papers that printed articles attacking these ideals and she clashed with Emma Goldman who promoted free love. She also believed that once black people won the same economic freedom as white people, racism would disappear. Her speeches and her views alienated her from some of the other anarchist leaders.
Life continued to bombard Lucy with personal tragedy. Her eight year old daughter Lulu Eda died in 1889, and her son, Albert Parsons, Jr., died from tuberculosis while imprisoned in a hospital for the insane. She had a relationship with an anarchist named Martin Lacher who helped her publish Albert’s autobiography, but Lacher abused her and she had to get police protection from him.
In June 1905, the labor movement in Chicago merged anarchists, snydicalists and trade unionists in the founding convention of the Industrial Workers of the World. The second woman of color to join the Industrial Workers of the World or the Wobblies, Lucy Parsons found it a comfortable fit because it exactly mirrored her political convictions. She believed that a well organized working class movement controlling production methods would bring about revolution and that the IWW’s militant strikes and direct action would hasten that revolution. She promoted the idea of a general strike at the founding convention of the IWW.
Lucy also expanded her journalistic work. In 1905, she edited the Industrial Workers of the World newspaper called The Liberator, based in Chicago. She agitated for women’s issues including the right to divorce, remarry, and use birth control and she wrote a column about famous women. She also wrote a history of the working class.
As the years rolled along, Lucy continued to speak and write for workers. In 1920-1921, she advocated for anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti who were accused of murdering two men during a bank robbery, and convicted, and executed. In 1930 and 1931,she protested the trial of the nine Scottsboro boys who were falsely accused of rape in Alabama. Lucy joined communist organizations including the National Committee of the International Labor Defense that supported labor activists and fought for the rights of African-Americans. She sympathized with the Communist Party and joined it in 1939, working toward revolution from her class consciousness perspective.
The Death and Legacy of Lucy Parsons
Lucy continued write speeches and articles to combat oppression. In February 1941, she spoke at the International Harvester, one of her last major appearances. On March 7, 1942, she died at age 89 in an accidental fire and her lover George Markstall whom she had been with since 1910, died the next day from injuries he had suffered while trying to save her. When her friend Irving Abrams came to rescue her library of 1,500 books about sex, socialism, and anarchy and all of her personal papers he didn’t find any of them. The FBI had already confiscated them.
Despite their efforts to silence Lucy Parsons, the Chicago police, the federal authorities, and the FBI did not silence Lucy. Her articles and books survived and so did her ideas. She joined many different groups during her life, but she remained fiercely individualistic and uncompromising in her beliefs. She worked from her perspective of class consciousness to change what she considered the oppressive capitalist system and she fought for the workers. She saw issues of sex and race as intertwined with the larger struggle for human rights. She was a woman of action and strong words, and although the establishment tried to still her individual voice it still resounds against all kinds of oppression decades after her death.
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