Tera W. Hunter is a professor of History and African American Studies at Princeton. Her latest book is “Bound in Wedlock: Slave and Free Black Marriage in the Nineteenth Century.”
Lucy Parsons occupies an unusual position in American history: a prominent woman noted as much for her acts of brilliance and bravery as for her evasiveness and contradictions.
Parsons spent most of her life in Chicago, where a park named in her honor calls her the first “Chicana socialist labor organizer.” Born circa 1853, Parsons said she was of Mexican and Indian descent and from Texas — an Aztec genealogy dating before Columbus. Elsewhere she’s been recognized as “the first Black woman to play a prominent role in the American Left.”
These differing narratives are indicative of a life that defies easy categorization and has challenged assessments of Parsons’s legacy.
Parsons was an anarchist, socialist, journalist and labor organizer who commanded audiences by the thousands. Beginning in the late 1880s, she scathingly criticized the American political economy and the titans of industry for exploiting working people. She was one of the most outspoken defenders of free speech and free assembly who was relentlessly persecuted by state agents opposed to her militancy.
Crowds sat in rapt attention, awed by her shocking speeches extolling the virtues of radical revolution and armed self-defense. They were curious, too, about the confident, “swarthy,” femme persona with a flair for dramatic disruption. Parsons would boldly march from the back of the room to the front to seize the lectern at events where she was not the invited speaker.
Despite her audacity, Parsons kept some things hidden. When pressed by a reporter to reveal her background, she demurred: “I am not a candidate for office, and the public have no right to my past. I amount to nothing to the world and people care nothing of me. I am battling for a principle.”
With “Goddess of Anarchy,” prize-winning historian Jacqueline Jones has written the first critical, comprehensive biography of Parsons that seeks to peel back the layers of her complex life. Jones amassed an incredible body of records — local, state and federal government documents; prolific newspapers; organizational and personal correspondence; and Lucy and husband Albert Parsons’s extant writings. Through these documents Jones uncovered evidence that Parsons was not of Mexican or Indian ancestry. Her research shows, too, that Parsons was not, as many have thought, born Lucia Eldine Gonzalez but as Lucia Carter in Virginia in 1851. Her mother was black, and her father was white (and probably her slave owner). Her family moved to Waco, Tex., during the Civil War, where Lucia worked as a cook and seamstress in the homes of white families. As a teenager, she married an older, formerly enslaved man, Oliver Benton, a.k.a. Oliver Gathings, and had a child who died as an infant.
Around 1869, Lucia met Albert Parsons, a printer and a former Confederate soldier born in Alabama in 1845; he would dramatically change the course of her life. Parsons had joined the Republican Party and was rising in local politics and journalism in Waco when he and Lucia had an affair while she was married to her first husband. Lucia and Oliver probably had never legally married, following traditions of informal unions adopted by slaves and newly freed people, although he continued to express grievances about his wife’s abandonment years later. Lucia and Albert legally wed in 1872, weeks before interracial unions were outlawed in Texas. It quickly became clear that they could not enjoy a life unencumbered by prejudice. They departed for Chicago in 1873, and Lucia changed her name to Lucy en route.
The couple had their first child, Albert Jr., in 1879 and a daughter, Lulu, in 1880. Lulu died of an illness at age 8. When Albert Jr. was 19, Lucy Parsons convinced a judge that he was violent and should be admitted to an insane asylum because he disobeyed her and joined the Army. Jones is unsparing in calling this an act of “gratuitous cruelty.” Albert Jr. endured abuse by guards and inmates because of his mother’s ideas, until he died from tuberculosis at 30.
In the first half of the biography, Jones, a professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin, explores the complex relationship between Lucy and Albert Sr. They were an extraordinary, volatile twosome who presented themselves to the world as equals. They were both charismatic leaders who drew large followings. Their political awakening rose in concert after they moved into German American neighborhoods and joined socialist and trade union circles in Chicago. He joined the Knights of Labor, the Workers Party of the United States and the Socialist Labor Party. She joined the Working Women’s Union.
After the Great Strike of 1877, the couple denounced the limitations of the two-party political system, criticized industrial elites’ use of state resources to advance their own interests at the expense of workers, and advocated the use of dynamite and guns to blow up buildings and kill capitalists. They embraced anarchy, but they were not doctrinaire. They also continued to adopt varied political strategies and institutional allegiances.
In 1886, a labor protest at Haymarket Square in Chicago turned violent. Police officers and others were killed. Albert was one of several men arrested as an assumed leader of the melee, and charged with conspiracy and murder. In 1887 he was executed, after running out of appeals made against an unfair trial.
After her husband died, Lucy Parsons took center stage. She became “a revolutionary cadre of one” who fought to stay relevant and remain in the newspaper headlines. She wrote profusely and traveled extensively to deliver speeches, out of both financial necessity and political passion.
Parsons was paradoxical: She spent her life fighting for the downtrodden but showed no interest in the plight of African Americans. She denied her African ancestry, although, according to Jones, few of her contemporaries were persuaded by her fictional origins, and they assumed she was black, as indicated by the constant references to her skin color and hair texture in skeptical newspaper accounts. She spoke no Spanish, which made her claims to a Chicana heritage even less persuasive, but the story was meant to claim native status in the old Southwest in part to repel the dismissive charges of “foreignness” leveled against immigrant dominant anarchists.
She did not and could not try to pass as white but chose the next best alternative as an exotic, non-black “other.” She rarely addressed issues facing black people, and when she did, she expressed more antipathy than sympathy. And yet, the only black person who would have spoken to more white Americans across the nation than Parsons would have been Frederick Douglass, the abolitionist.
Parsons is a remarkable woman who managed to get past many of the barriers that impeded members of her race and sex. She was primarily an autodidact who became a writer and speaker, with eclectic and densely erudite proclivities, of some distinction. She presumed her right to take the stage to voice her critique of the vicissitudes of economic inequalities, which would still be considered incendiary today. Despite being harassed and arrested, she persisted until her death in 1942.
Jones’s richly researched and engagingly written biography establishes Parsons’s rightful place in the pantheon of American radicals. Yet it leaves open the question of her legacy among African Americans. Parsons may not have identified herself as black, but she nonetheless expanded the possibilities of what it meant to be black.
By Jacqueline Jones
Basic. 480 pp. $32