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“The common assumption is that Lucy Parsons is a virago, that when she talks she screams, that she strides instead of walking, that her daily regimen is a red light,” wrote a reporter from Chicago’s The Inter Ocean in the summer of 1900. “Half the power of Lucy Parsons is due to the fact that she is to the public, and even to her followers, a mythical terror.”
Across the country and particularly in his home port of Chicago, a city filled with socialists and revolutionaries at the turn of the 20th century, Parsons was infamous. Known as the “Anarchist Queen,” she fiercely denounced the oppressions of a capitalist system in essays and speeches. She was one of the two women founders of the powerful International Workers of the World union and editor-in-chief of various revolutionary publications. She supported widespread strikes in favor of an eight-hour workday and better treatment of workers, and argued for more radical tactics: in famous essay she urged homeless ‘bums’ to “learn the use of explosives!”
While her husband, Albert Parsons, was one of eight anarchists on trial in the disastrous Haymarket case and one of four hanged for it, law enforcement may have viewed Lucy as threatening as he was. , if not, more. Police “are watching her as they would with a can of dynamite,” wrote The Inter Ocean. “When a riot call is transmitted, the first assumption is that ‘Lucy is starting over.’ “
Only part of his notoriety has survived him: sixty years after his death, when a Chicago park in the Belmont Cragin neighborhood bears his name in 2004, the police union opposed it. Mayor Daley’s response showed how much she has been forgotten, probably largely because she was a woman: he defended the honor by saying it was unfair to blame her for her husband’s actions, completely missing his own radical views.
She may also have been dismissed over a century earlier because she was a woman. In 1886 prominent anarchists were arrested after someone bombed police in an otherwise peaceful protest and police responded with gunfire, in the disastrous Haymarket case. Although Albert Parsons was not present at the anarchist rally when the bomb was thrown, he was still tried and convicted. Lucy was also arrested at the time – police believed she knew where her husband was hiding – but she was not charged – possibly because the likelihood of a woman being sentenced to death was low and the The prosecution wanted a severe sentence. .
She traveled the country talking about the unfairness of the trial. (The governor of Illinois pardoned the surviving defendants in 1893 and criticized the trial.) When she tried to get her two children to her husband’s hanging, police prevented them from attending. instead, bringing her into a cell and strip searching her.
It was far from his only altercation with the police. (“She always gets arrested,” wrote The Inter Ocean.) She would arrive frequently for a speech in a conference room to find the police waiting for her. She was a strong champion of free speech and other rights; she published a journal titled Freedom.
Some freedom was evident in her own life, despite the limitations of a woman like her at the time. While Parsons always claimed to be born in Texas to parents who were a combination of Mexicans, Native Americans or Spaniards (her explanations have changed), she was actually black, born into slavery in Virginia circa 1853, like Jacqueline Jones. revealed this in a recent myth-dispelling biography. Parsons never admitted it. She was often called Lucy Gonzales.
She married white Albert Parsons in Texas, and the couple quickly left for Chicago to escape anti-miscegenation laws and intense antagonism to their radical politics. (Parsons claimed The Inter Ocean that Albert was conservative when she met him, but dispelled the “old idea of religion” from him.) After Albert was fired from a printing job and blacklisted for organizing workers, Lucy supported the family as a seamstress and, later, selling chickens she raised as well as coffee and tea, according to The Inter Ocean, who liked to point out the alleged incoherence of the “bourgeois [sic] surroundings ”of the house of Parsons with his anarchist views.
While supporting the expansion of women’s rights, she never really aligned with the suffragists, believing the elections to be frauds controlled by the wealthy classes. “I consider the ballot to be totally useless for solving class problems,” she wrote in the Chicago Tribune. “[T]The owning or owning classes will not give up what they consider to be their rights, unless they are forced to do so. She broke up with other anarchists when they stood up for sexual freedom and marriage abandonment, though Jones points out that Parsons had multiple lovers.
She politely criticized the social work of Jane Addams and others like her, and only broached race issues at the end of her life. Despite his claim to The Inter Ocean that “socialism is simply a school for training anarchists,” she eventually abandoned the anarchists and joined the Communist Party. She owned her two-story house at 1777 North Troy Street in the northwest and rented the ground floor.
“A strange creature is Lucy Parsons …” wrote The Inter Ocean. “One is almost certain, after a conversation with her, that kings, queens and capitalists would be perfectly safe in her neighborhood. She befriends them and lends them her lawn mower. At the same time, his speech could set a powder mill on fire and his friends could be burned in the explosion.
Given all the scary talk about fires and explosions that surrounded Parsons in the media, it may be ironic that she died in an accidental fire in 1942, aged 89. After her death, authorities seized her books and papers – part of the reason she is so little remembered today.
In the Inter Ocean Profile of Parsons from 1900, the reporter at one point assured Parsons that he or she was trustworthy: “She was told she would not be misrepresented. “Oh, I don’t care,” she said, laughing and shrugging. ‘I’m used to it.’ “