Lucia “Lucy” Carter Parsons, one of the most famous and notorious U. S. anarchists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, was born to an enslaved woman named Charlotte in Virginia in 1851. Named Lucia as a child, she was best known as Lucy Parsons, the wife and then widow of Albert R. Parsons, who was executed in November 1887 for his alleged role in the Haymarket bombing in Chicago a year before. After his death, however, Lucy Parsons launched her own career writing and speaking about the depredations of capitalism for more than a half-century. Writer, editor, agitator-orator, she garnered widespread attention around the country for her defiant rhetoric condemning capitalism and the judge and jury responsible for the execution of her husband.
Lucia, her mother, and her two younger brothers, Tanner and Webster, were owned by Dr. Thomas J. Taliaferro, who during the Civil War served briefly as a surgeon in the Confederate army. About 1863 he forcibly removed at least a portion of his enslaved workers (from either Virginia or Tennessee) to McLennan County, Texas. After the war, Charlotte left the Taliaferro household and took Lucia and her brothers to the nearby town of Waco. There Charlotte married a freedman named Charlie Carter. Lucia and her brothers took Carter as a last name.
In Waco, Lucia worked as a seamstress and domestic servant in the homes of White families. For some period of time she attended a school for freed children. By 1868 she had met Oliver Benton, a former slave of James J. Gathings of Hill County, Texas. (Benton had shed his owner’s surname and taken the last name of his father.) Around 1869 Lucia became pregnant, and Benton later claimed the baby was his. However, Lucia had recently become attached to a young former Confederate soldier, Albert Parsons. The 1870 federal census taker found Lucia in a dwelling occupied by her infant son, Champ, her mother and two brothers. The fate of the baby is unknown.
Albert Parsons took the unusual step (for Confederate veterans) of embracing the Republican Party. In 1867 he became an active political party organizer among African Americans and urged them to register and vote. He had political ambitions and during Reconstruction curried favor with prominent Republicans, including James P. Newcomb, editor of the San Antonio Express, and Edmund J. Davis, both of whom favored civil rights for African Americans (see AFRICAN AMERICANS AND POLITICS).
As political control shifted from the Republican party to the more conservative Democratic party, Parsons found a public official to marry him and Lucia Carter in September 1872. The following year, however, the Democrats had recaptured the state which prompted Albert and Lucia to flee to Chicago the following year. Around this time, she changed her name to Lucy. There they settled in a German American neighborhood and became involved in radical socialist politics. Albert Parsons played a major role in the Chicago general strike in the summer of 1877; the strike was precipitated by railroad owners cutting the pay of their workers. He addressed large crowds of workers and urged them to defend themselves against the massive military force arrayed against them. The Great Railroad Strike, as it came to be called, included numerous cities, including Galveston, Texas (see STRIKES). It was a turning point for Lucy. She saw the potential of mass mobilization to disrupt a corrupt system and create change. After several failed attempts by Parsons to win election for local office on the Socialist ticket, the couple denounced the electoral system and embraced anarchism. In 1884 he started a new anarchist paper, The Alarm. For the first issue, in October of that year, Lucy wrote an essay called “To Tramps,” in which she denounced wealthy capitalists and urged unemployed workers to seek revenge on their former bosses. She ended the piece with the words, “Learn the use of explosives!”
A voracious reader, Lucy Parsons was largely self-taught. She and Albert believed that trade unions were the embryos of a good and just society. They believed that in the future cash wages would be unnecessary as all goods, services, and foods would be bartered and traded among small groups of like-minded workers. In the midst of all this, they had a son, Albert Jr., in 1879 and a daughter, Lulu Eda, two years later.
Albert and Lucy Parsons won well-earned reputations for their provocative statements and speeches. On May 4, 1886, someone threw a bomb at a rally organized by anarchists in Chicago’s Haymarket Square, killing seven police officers and an unknown number of civilians and wounding many more. Albert and seven of his comrades were arrested and tried for conspiracy to murder, though none of those on trial had thrown the bomb (the identity of the bomber remained unknown into the twenty-first century). The presiding judge had prejudged the case in favor of the prosecution, and the trial was a farce. On November 11, 1887, Albert and three other men were hanged for their alleged role in the bombing.
Between the time of Albert’s trial and execution, Lucy took to the road to condemn the legal proceedings and raise money for the defense. During this period she assumed a new persona—that of Lucy Eldine (or Ella) Gonzalez of Buffalo Creek, Texas, the daughter of Native American and Mexican parents, a fiction made plausible by her light skin color and indeterminate origins. From October 1886 through March 1887, she travelled throughout the Midwest and Northeast. Her fiery rhetoric alarmed newspaper reporters and editors as well as local police chiefs. Indeed, critics began to compare her to the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. They called her a “firebrand” and charged her with making “incendiary” statements calculated to “ignite” the discontent of the laboring classes and engulf the country in a violent “conflagration.” Newspaper headlines labelled her the “goddess of anarchy.”
Lucy eschewed the mantle of the grieving widow of a Haymarket “martyr,” and gave angry, defiant speeches in the United States and England, which she visited in late 1888. Parsons sought to keep alive the memory of her husband and at the same time condemn the system of capitalism, which she claimed was the source of much misery among the laboring classes. Back in Chicago, she raised the ire of municipal officials and police, who sought to quiet her. She supported herself by selling images of Albert and her own publications, including an edited volume that featured his autobiography. She edited two short-listed anarchist papers, Freedom: A Revolutionary Anarchist-Communist Monthly (1890–92) and The Liberator (1905–06), both of which reached only a limited audience in Chicago and its environs. She also relied on a stipend from a charitable group, the Pioneer Aid and Support Association, a group of sympathetic German American anarchists. Soon though they became disillusioned with her for a number of reasons, including that she had been carrying on a very public affair with a young, married German immigrant. Further, the group thought that she seemed insufficiently grateful to the association for their financial assistance, which allowed her to build a small house for herself.
Neither she nor Albert evinced much interest in the plight of Black people, in Chicago or in the South; the couple focused on White urban workers, whom they believed were revolutionaries-in-waiting. Parsons gained a large following in Chicago among White workers for her theatrical resistance to police officers who attempted to silence her. During the 1890s the authorities tried to insist that she display the American flag wherever she spoke, a tactic meant to silence her but one that only heightened her fame and stiffened her resistance to the officers and undercover detectives who followed her around obsessively.
Parsons lost not only her husband prematurely, but also her children. Lulu succumbed to illness at the age of seven in 1888. In 1899 Albert Jr. threatened to join the army, a move that shocked and angered his anti-imperialist mother. In July 1899 she hauled him before a Chicago insane-court judge, who sent the young man to the Elgin asylum north of the city. There he remained until his death from tuberculosis twenty years later.
Although Lucy Parsons was associated with some of the major radical activists of the early twentieth century, she remained peripheral to their history. She feuded openly with the socialist Eugene Debs, whom she believed was too tied to the partisan political system, and the anarchist and free-love advocate Emma Goldman, whom she saw as a rival. She attended the founding convention of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) in Chicago in 1905, but organizers of the meeting saw her primarily as a link to the city’s radical past and not as an organizer in her own right. She was involved in the founding of the Syndicalist League of North America, a group led by William Z. Foster, a Chicago labor organizer who was a member of the IWW and later general secretary of the Communist Party USA). She was in the northwestern states off and on during the IWW’s pre-World War I free speech campaigns but primarily to sell her books and tracts. After the war she became active in the International Labor Defense, a Communist organization established to provide legal services to radicals arrested by the authorities; but she never joined the Communist party. In the 1930s she expressed disillusion with the workers who embraced President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Democratic party. She believed the New Deal was an effort to co-opt working men and women and forestall the inevitable revolution that would overthrow capitalism.
Lucy Parsons remained active in Chicago May Day celebrations and in annual commemorations of the Haymarket bombing. She died in a fire that swept through her Avondale house on March 7, 1942. Her longtime companion George Markstall, who had tried to save her, succumbed to his burns and died the following day. Law enforcement authorities—probably local police working with officials of the Federal Bureau of Investigation—confiscated her extensive library of history, political theory, and literature. She is buried in Forest Home Cemetery west of Chicago, near her husband, Emma Goldman, and other anarchists.