Lucy Parsons - "More Dangerous Than A Thousand Rioters"
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.