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Lucy Parsons (1851–1942)

Activist, Radical, Anarchist

The story of an anarchist and public speaker who used her position as the “Haymarket Widow” to influence Chicago activism.

Lucy Parsons

“Mrs. Lucy E. Parsons, arrested during protest at Hull House,” Chicago Daily News, Inc., January 18, 1915. Chicago History Museum.

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Lucia Carter was born into slavery in Virginia in 1851. Her mother, Charlotte, was an enslaved woman. Her father was most likely a white man named Tolliver who was her enslaver. He moved Lucia and the rest of her family to Waco, Texas, in 1863. There he could avoid the enforcement of the Emancipation Proclamation as the Confederates were in firm control of the state. Lucia and her family received their freedom when the Civil War ended and stayed in Waco.

At the age of 16 or 17, Lucia was in a relationship with a formerly enslaved man named Oliver Benton. Oliver was two decades older than Lucia. He claimed the two were married, but there is no legal evidence of this. During their relationship, Lucia gave birth to a baby boy named Champ Carter, who died in infancy.

In 1870, Lucia met Albert Parsons, a white former Confederate soldier. After the Civil War, he accepted the South’s loss and supported rights for Black Americans. The two fell in love and married on September 28, 1872. Just weeks later, the Texas government outlawed interracial marriage. Lucia and Albert’s marriage was legal because they married before the passage of this law. However, living openly as an interracial couple made them a target for racist violence. They moved to Chicago in December of 1873.

While relocating to Chicago, Lucia left many parts of her past behind. She cut ties with her family, Oliver, and everyone else who knew her to be a formerly enslaved woman. She also changed her name from Lucia to Lucy.

In Chicago, Lucy actively denied her racial background. She rarely spent time in the city’s Black neighborhoods. Her lighter skin allowed her to deny her true heritage, although her skin was not light enough to pass as white. Lucy told people her parents were Indigenous and Mexican as a way to hide her true heritage.

While living in Chicago, Lucy opened her own sewing business, and Albert worked at a newspaper. Many of their new friends were socialists. Both Lucy and Albert became regular speakers at socialist gatherings.

On July 14, 1877, railroad workers in West Virginia went on strike against pay cuts. This protest inspired workers in other cities to stand up for better working conditions. On July 23, over 30,000 laborers in Chicago joined the strike. Fights broke out between protesters and police. In the turmoil, police officers killed 30 people.

Albert and Lucy were horrified by the events they witnessed during the strike. Their beliefs grew increasingly radical, and they eventually became anarchists. They believed that it was not possible to form a better society within the current political system, which should be abolished entirely.

Lucy criticized the new inventions and excesses of the Industrial Age, as many Chicagoans still lived in poverty. While Lucy was outspoken against capitalism, she loved shopping and always wore the latest fashions. She was a woman of deep contradictions.

In 1879, Lucy gave birth to a son, Albert Jr. Her daughter, Lulu, was born in 1881. A growing family did not stop her work as a business owner or as an activist. Several months after she gave birth to Lulu, Lucy joined the Knights of Labor, where she helped organize for better working conditions. She also continued an increasingly successful career as a writer for socialist and activist journals, in addition to expanding her sewing business into a small factory.

Albert launched the socialist newspaper The Alarm in 1884. An article written by Lucy appeared on the front page. In it, Lucy called on workers to stand up for their rights and better working conditions. It ended with the powerful recommendation to “Learn the use of explosives!” The popular article was reprinted and sold on its own among anarchist circles.

Talk about explosives became increasingly common among anarchists. They believed that violence and destruction could scare the powerful, inspire the working class, and prove that radicals were serious about their demands. By the spring of 1885, the media frequently associated Lucy and Albert with the use of explosives. It is unclear to what extent the Parsons actually believed in this kind of violence.

“Never be deceived that the rich will allow you to vote away their wealth.”

On May 4, 1886, Lucy, Albert, and their children attended a labor protest near Haymarket Square in Chicago. Even though they did not organize the event, Albert decided to give a speech to the crowd. Then it started to rain and Lucy and Albert went home with their children.

After they left, someone threw a bomb at a police officer. Riots broke out and at least eight people died as a result. Police quickly blamed radical activists, including Albert. They arrested him and six other well-known Chicago radicals. Most of the suspects were German immigrants.

Albert Parsons was convicted and sentenced to death. Upon hearing the verdict, Lucy ran to her husband and kissed him. In the months leading up to the execution, she regularly visited Albert in prison. She often invited journalists on her visits because she wanted Albert to be seen as a martyr for the anarchist movement.

The State of Illinois executed Albert and three other activists by hanging on November 11, 1887. Lucy took their children to visit him one last time. Prison guards wanted to punish Lucy for her anarchist activism and refused to let Lucy and the children say goodbye to Albert. Frustrated, Lucy tried to pass the guards. The guards arrested Lucy and the children and forced her to take off her clothes. They released Lucy and the children after Albert’s execution.

The Haymarket Affair and her husband’s execution changed Lucy’s life. She called herself the “Haymarket Widow.” She published Albert’s autobiography in 1889 to spread his views and earn money to support her children. Lucy frequently went on public-speaking tours across the country.

Lucy faced another loss in 1889 when Lulu died of a rare disease. In contrast to her public image as the grieving “Haymarket Widow,” Lucy mourned Lulu privately. She only briefly addressed her daughter’s death once in a public speech.

By the 1890s, Lucy grew estranged from other anarchists. She started an affair with a married man shortly after Albert’s death, which many fellow anarchists criticized. She also no longer believed that acts of violence were acceptable or effective. Through her work, Lucy met another female anarchist named Emma Goldman. The two women did not get along and had very different views on anarchism. Goldman believed Lucy’s fame was based on the myth of her husband’s martyrdom.

Lucy continued public-speaking tours and was outspoken about current events. During the Spanish-American War in 1898, she was critical of Spanish treatment of the Cuban people, as well as American imperialism.

Albert Jr. disagreed with his mother and enlisted to fight in the war. Lucy was furious. She convinced authorities that he should be committed to a mental institution because he was violent and disobeyed her. Albert Jr. spent the rest of his life at the Elgin Asylum and died on August 15, 1919 of tuberculosis.

In 1905, Lucy helped found the International Workers of the World (IWW), an international labor union. Her activism focused on poverty and unemployment, but she continued to identify as an anarchist. She also edited an anarchist newspaper called The Liberator.

Lucy continued to give public lectures about worker’s rights into her 80s. She died in a house fire on March 7, 1942. Lucy Parsons was a complicated woman who left behind a legacy as one of the most notable radicals in American history.

Vocabulary

  • anarchism: The political belief that government is unnecessary and that society would be better off if individuals took care of themselves and each other.
  • capitalism: The economic and political system in which property, business, and industry are owned by private individuals and not by the state, and the pursuit of economic profit is central.
  • martyr: Someone who is killed because of their beliefs.
  • radicalism: Extreme behavior and beliefs.
  • socialism: A political system with the goal of providing everyone with the same opportunities and benefits.

Discussion Questions

  • How did Lucy Parsons spread her views about anarchism?
  • How did Lucy Parsons’s beliefs change over time? What caused those changes?
  • Why did Lucy Parsons try to conceal her identity as a formerly enslaved woman? What does that say about Black Americans’ position in American society at the end of the 19th century?
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Themes

ACTIVISM AND SOCIAL CHANGE

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