Searching for Lucy Parsons: A Racial Riddle

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by Emily England
African American Intellectual History Society
March 22, 2015

How do I accurately discuss a historical person who was known for purposefully and repeatedly changing her identity? This question has haunted me for several months now, ever since I first learned about Lucy Parsons.

Last fall, I had the opportunity to spend the semester at the Newberry Library in Chicago as part of their Associated Colleges of the Midwest Research in the Humanities program. After hearing I was interested in the Chicago anarchists and the Haymarket bombing of 1886, a friend told me to check out Parsons, the wife of Albert Parsons, one of the hanged Chicago Haymarket anarchists, because she was a “crazy cool” radical labor activist whose contributions are often overlooked by historians for a multitude of reasons, including race, gender, and having a more famous husband. With only that nugget of knowledge, I ventured into the archives, naïve and hopeful, only to emerge at the end of the semester completely frazzled from discovering conflicting details about every biographical detail surrounding the life of Parsons.

The current score? Two first names, two middle names, at least six maiden names, two birth dates, two birth places, three men she may or may not have married (two she claimed and likely never legally married and one she did not claim but may have been the most likely to have legally married her), two documented children and one mysterious middle child (if anyone knows anything about this child, I’m still dying of curiosity), at least two different sets of parents, and three possible racial identities—she claimed Native American and indigenous Mexican heritages, her contemporaries often labeled her black, her death certificate listed her as white, and contemporary scholars offer various combinations.

Many of these conflicting details were relatively easy to come to terms with, but issues of gender and race continued to plague me as I sought her out in the archives and in historical scholarship on her life and times. Here I focus solely on the question of her race (though it is difficult to separate this from accompanying claims about her gender[1]).

Scholar Lauren Basson explains that Parsons “assumed the same authority and exercised as much power as white men in certain political contexts. Her ability to transcend racial and gender barriers and achieve a powerful, oppositional political voice threatened conventional definitions of the sociopolitical order.”[2] These factors all contributed to the way the press of the time chose to depict her and also assisted their overall depictions of anarchists in general. However, Parsons was aware of what the media was trying to do, and she responded to the various claims against her by capitalizing on some aspects of her identity, while changing others throughout her life.

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