Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Lucy Parsons - An American Revolutionary

Lucy Parson (1853-1942) was an early activist of color, one of the founders of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW, the ‘wobblies’); and the widow of executed “Haymarket 8” figure, Albert Parsons. For more than half a century, she fought for the rights of the poor. Lucy's radical activism challenged the racist and sexist sentiments in a time when Americans believed that a woman's place was in the home. She was once described by the Chicago Police Department as "more dangerous than a thousand rioters," in the 1920's.


She born in Texas, where her parents were probably slaves before the Emancipation Proclamation. She always claimed to be of Mexican and American Indian heritage, disavowing having African parentage. Given the Jim Crow laws in the South after Reconstruction, which ended any hope of blacks having equal rights, it would have been prudent for Lucy to have disavowed being black.

Not much is known about her early life before she met and married Albert Parsons, although she apparently was living with a former slave named Oliver Gathings, who she may or may not have been married to, when she met Parsons. Although she and Parsons married in 1871, the marriage may not have been legal given the laws against miscegenation in the South at the time.

Albert's family had deep roots in America soil. His ancestry could be traced back 1632 when his ancestors arrived on the second voyage of The Mayflower. His family fought in the American Revolution, so the revolutionary spirit was deep in his veins. Albert was orphaned by the age of 5, and raised by his brother William Parsons, who became a colonel in the 12th regiment of the Texas Calvary. Albert had volunteered to fight on the side of the Confederacy during the war at the age of 13. After the war, Albert regretted his support for slavery and even apologized to the black nanny who had helped to raise him. He became a radical Republican after the war. The 13th Amendment which gave freedom to all slaves gave rise to the Klu Klux Klan which was particularly strong in Texas. Albert had been involved in registering black voters. When he was shot in the leg and threatened with lynching, the Parsons decided it was prudent for them to move to Chicago.


The Parsons moved to a poor neighborhood, where they became involved with the Social Democratic Party, which was associated with Marxism. Lucy gave birth to two children, Albert Jr. and Lulu. In Chicago, Albert got a job working as a printer for the Chicago Times. The year 1873 was a difficult time; the country was suffering from a deep depression, leaving millions of people unemployed. In 1864, Congress had passed the Contract Labor Law which allowed American businesses to contract and bring in immigrant laborers creating a large unskilled labor population that were driving wages down. However, the labor population was being radicalized by the introduction of socialism and anarchism to the United States.


It was the beginning of the rise of the labor movement in the United States. All over the country workers were getting fed up at working long hours at dangerous jobs, with no security, with companies tacking on extra charges and forcing workers to buy goods from the company store at a mark-up. Industrialists like Andrew Carnegie who had started out poor seemed to have selective memories when it came to remembering their past life of poverty. The rich were getting richer by the minute off the backs of the poor, and they weren't going to take it any longer.


In the summer of 1877, one of the greatest mass strikes took place in response to the depression. Rail workers all over the country joined picket lines to protest wage cuts by the Baltimore Ohio Railroad. In July of that year, the protests moved to Chicago, where rail workers waged a militant battle. They derailed an engine and baggage cars and engaged in sporadic battles with police who attempted to disperse the strikers and break it up. Albert Parsons addressed the crowds to promote peaceful ways of negotiating. This helped to bring him to the forefront of the anarchist movement in Chicago and to the attention of the police.


Because of his involvement with organizaing workers, Albert was fired from his job and blacklisted in the printing trade. Lucy opened a dress shop to make ends meet, and with her friend Lizzie Swank, hosted meetings of the International Ladies Garment Works Union. Like most women in the late 20th and 21st century, Lucy found herself juggling work and family life with her political activities.

She began to write articles for many radical publications, including The Socialist and the Alarm, an anarchist weekly which she and Albert helped to found in 1883. Lucy was often considered more dangerous than Albert because she was so outspoken in her beliefs on the rights of the poor. She also upset the image of the woman as the little homemaker by being a militant and radical female.


By 1886, people across the country were had had it with their working conditions, and the squelching of union activities by authorities. There was a huge cry for an 8 hour work day. On May 1st, 350,000 workers across the nation walked off their jobs to participate in a massive general strike to force employers to give in to the 8 hour work day with no cut in pay. 40,000 workers alone walked off their jobs in Chicago. But on May 3d the strike turned violent when police fired into a crowd of unarmed strikers at the McCormick Harvest Works in Chicago. Many of the strikers were wounded, and four were killed.

A meeting was called in Haymarket Square to discuss the situation. Once again the police disrupted the meeting, and an unknown person threw a bomb, killing one officer and 7 civilians, and wounding 67 others. Immediately, the police attacked the crowd, killing more and injuring over 200 others. Police swept the city, rounding up every known radical and anarchist. Even though he had left the Haymarket after giving his speech that day, Albert Parsons was one of 8 men accused of conspiracy to commit murder. The prosecution's case rested on the idea that the men had encouraged whoever threw the bomb by their speeches and articles that they had written. Although Ablert went into hiding in Wisconsin, on the first trial date, he walked into the court to turn himself in.



Lucy found herself under constant surveillance by the police. She was even arrested under the suspicion that she knew the whereabouts of her husband. However, she was never charged with conspiracy in the bombing. The rationale was that women were incapable of such radical and militant action.


In October of 1887, despite the lack of hard evidence, all 8 men were sentenced to death by hanging. Of the 8 men tried, one man, Louis Lingg committed suicide in prison, Samuel Fielden and Mihcael Schwab were eventually given life sentences, and another Oscar Neebe received 15 years on appeal. Lucy, who was angered and appalled that her husband should die for a crime he didn’t commit, headed a campaign for clemency. She knew the only reason that he was sentenced to hang was because of his radical beliefs. Lucy toured the country, handing out leaflets about the unjust trial and raising funds. Everywhere she went, Lucy was greeted by police who refused her entry into meeting halls.

Lucy even found herself at odds with the Knights of Labor, the group to which she and Albert had belonged. Terence Powderly, the leader of the Knights, took a passive stance. He didn’t believe in striking, discouraging members from using that tactic to obtain their demands. He was appalled by the increasing radicalization of the labor movement, and felt that the government should make an example of the Haymarket defendants. Even without their support, Lucy kept on speaking out, gaining more and more attention for the Haymarket case and making a name for herself.


Unfortunately it was all in vain. The Governor of Illinois at the time was under tremendous pressure to execute the men despite the fact that the evidence was completely circumstantial. The four men were executed on November 11, 1887. When Lucy brought her 2 children to see their father for the last time, she was arrested along with them, taken to jail, stripped and left naked with her children in a cold cell until Albert was executed. Lucy vowed to keep on fighting, even though she now feared for her life.


Lucy was left in near poverty after Albert’s death, her only support was a small pension of eight dollars a week plus $2 each for the two children and $1 for a third set up by the Pioneer Aid and Support Association for the widows of the Haymarket martyrs. She continued to operate a dress-making business to make ends meet but more and more of her time was taken up with her political activities. In 1892, Lucy briefly published Freedom, a Revolutionary/Anarchist-Communist monthly. Because of her radical beliefs, she was often arrested for giving public speeches or distributing anarchist literature. Lucy's First Amendment rights were trampled on repeatedly by the police. Although Lucy was devoted to the anarchist cause, she found herself at odds with some of the more prominent members such as Emma Goldman and their promotion of free love. Lucy felt that marriage and children were the natural order of things. She also believed that racism would be eliminated once blacks were able to have the same economic freedom that whites had achieved.

Her personal life continued to be filled with tragedy. Her daughter Lulu Eda died at the age of 8, two years after her father's execution, and her son, Albert Parsons, Jr. died from tuberculosis while incarcerated in a hospital for the insane. Lucy fell into a relationship with another young anarchist named Martin Lacher who helped her publish Albert's autobiography. However, he was abusive and Lucy had to seek police protection against him.


In 1905, Lucy participated in the founding of the International Workers of the World becoming only the second woman of color to join what became known as the 'Wobblies.' She also began editing The Liberator, which was the newspaper that supported the IWW in Chicago. Over the years she continued to write and give speeches on behalf of the workers. She wrote letters and articles protesting the trial of the Scottsoboro boys and Sacco and Vanzetti. Although she never officially joined the Communist party, Lucy became involved with communist led organizations including the National Committee of the International Labor Defense that defended labor activists and unjustly accused African-Americans. Lucy was quoted as saying "My conception of the strike of the future is not to strike and go out and starve but to strike and remain in and take possession of the necessary property of production." (Wobblies! 14). With these words, Lucy Parsons anticipated the sit-down strikes that took place in the United States later in the 20th century.


Lucy Parsons died on March 7, 1942 at the age of 89 after in house fire. Her lover, George Markstall, who she had lived with since 1910, died the next day from wounds he suffered from trying to save her. Even after her death, the state considered her to be a threat, the FBI and the police seized all 1500 of her books and personal papers. She was cremated and buried near to her husband, by the Haymarket monument, in Chicago.


Lucy Parson's life story is one of how a woman with very little education became a powerful voice for the underprivileged. She honed her voice agitating for her husband's freedom during the Haymarket trial. Although she was not a feminist, Lucy fought for the rights of all individuals to have freedom and a fair wage. It is only in recent years that there has been more interest in Lucy Parsons and the work she did after the death of Albert Parsons. Unfortunately there is only one known biography of her by Carolyn Anspaugh that was published in the late 1970's. Her story cries out for a sensitive treatment on the big or small screen (paging Halle Berry) to bring her story to a wider audience.

For more information on Lucy, The Lucy Parsons Project has a wealth of links including links to Lucy's own writings.



For more information on the Haymarket riots:

7 comments:

Georgie Lee said...

I love your profiles. It's great to read about amazing women I haven't heard of before.

Christopher said...

A truly remarkable and heroic woman. It's simply amazing she survived for so long, all the terrible travails she had to undergo. What she must have suffered, both physically and emotionally, beggars belief.

Your essay reveals aspects of American history I suspect not too many Americans know about. If more did, I have a hunch that today's Republican Party wouldn't have the support it has!!!

I was wondering how the life of Lucy Parsons could be fitted in to a blog called "Scandalous Women". I suppose that, while Lucy was the epitome of courage and heroism, she may well have been called a "scandalous woman" by the upholders of the system under which she suffered.

We, who are so fortunate to live in today's society, with its freedoms which we take for granted, stand upon the shoulders of heroes like Lucy and Albert Parsons.

Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

Christopher, I'm sort of stretching the boundaries of the term Scandalous with Lucy. While she may not have been a sexual adventuress like Barbara Castlemaine or Ninon de Lenclos, she's scandalous in the sense that she spoke out about injustice when as a woman of color she was expected to keep her mouth shut and her head down and she didn't. In a white woman it would have been still considered shocking, despite the number of suffragettes and women abolitionists. Also interracial marriages at that time were definitely shocking and scandalous. It was one thing to take a woman of color as your mistress, you certainly didn't fall in love and marry her. When you read about people like Lucy and Albert Parsons, and the other men that died with him, you realize how lucky we are that our first amendment rights are actually upheld for the most part.

Thanks, Georgie. One of the things I love about history and this blog is spotlighting women that most people haven't heard of but should.

Joyce Hanson said...

Hello, Elizabeth. Thanks for this blog post. I'm from Chicago originally and had only vaguely heard of Lucy Parsons. Now I know the real story!

I can't believe I've only just now found your blog. I'm also a "scandalous women in history" writer and blogger, but my name for them is "Bad Girls". Please check out my blog, and I look forward to continuing to read yours. Great stuff.

Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

Hi Joyce, I've actually read your blog and loved it. I need to add you to my blogroll. I like the way you relate the Bad Girls to your own life. I get a little giddy whenever I find another 'Scandalous Woman'to write about. Without them, where would we all be?

loove said...

This is a really great blog! Even though there were just a tiny bit of grammar mistake, thank you for posting this up. I'm actually typing a paper on her and I love how you make her story easy to understand, unlike some other sites and her biography (which i barely got passed page 27). Thanks again.

Cahoots said...

Here's a screenplay about her: http://pinterest.com/paidtobenice/1886-feature-historical-drama-spec/