Searching for Lucy Parsons: A Racial Riddle

This article was originally published on March 22, 2015. 

Lucy Parsons, 1915 (Newberry Library)

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 who 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).

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.” 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.

In the late 1800s, particularly after the Haymarket “riot,” the white pro-capitalist press attempted to set politically radical thought in direct opposition to what it meant to be “American” in the hopes it would dissuade people from joining the radicals.[2] They did this by invoking two quite different stereotypes for the same group of people—either the frightening foreigner from Eastern Europe or the “savage” Native American. When describing the anarchists, the journalists emphasized wild unkempt hair and their propensity toward alcohol. They called anarchist meetings “war dances” and the women “squaws.” They did this, as Basson explains, in order to “create and legitimize an ascriptive distinction between capitalist, American bodies, and foreign, anarchist bodies.”

Rather than accepting that a Native American identity was a detriment, Parsons claimed her indigenous racial identity along the same lines that the press used against her. Whereas the press emphasized the “violent savage,” she argued that her Indians were the ones who “welcomed” the journalists’ ancestors to this continent, which served to legitimize the American-ness of radical thought. She often declared roots native to America in order to show “anarchism as an authentic American ideology.” Take, for example, this section of a speech:

Now I am not a stranger. Men are here, born among the snow-capped mountains of despotic Russia. I am one whose ancestors are indigenous to the soil of America. When Columbus first came in sight of the Western continent, my father’s ancestors were there to give them a native greeting. When the conquering hosts of Cortez moved upon Mexico, my mother’s ancestors were there to repel the invader; so that I represent the genuine American. I don’t say this from any national feeling of boundary lines; I simply say this to show the tenor of the times and the different peoples who are here tonight.1

In response, the white press started to use what seemed to them the very worst racial descriptors; they emphasized her “flashing black eyes,” “swarthy complexion,” and her “mulatto” or “negro” skin color. This discredited her by removing her further from the privileges of white American society and by essentially calling her a liar when it came to her own identity.

Parsons provides a perfect study in how an individual can shape their identity in response to their historical settings and how scholars must navigate between the individual’s claimed identity and the identities imposed upon them by their historical contemporaries.

Many of Parsons’s contemporaries based their opinions of her race solely off her appearance, before either rumor was published to discredit her public standing. Many newspaper accounts labeled her a “negro” or “negress” in their headlines and described her appearance as sufficient reason to assume she had some African heritage. A Dublin paper wrote in 1888, “Her dark skin, black, frizzy hair, thick lips and flat nose, all betray her African descent.” The Kansas City Times described her as having a “swarthy, half mulatto-half Indian face” in a December 20, 1886, article. Anarchist hunter police chief Michael Schaack wrote that Parsons “maintains that she is of Mexican extraction, with no negro blood in her veins, but her swarthy complexion and distinctively negro features do not bear out her assertions.” Despite Parsons’s claims to the contrary, the capitalist press stuck to their story that Parsons had African heritage, making her, and her principles by extension, utterly politically suspect.

And yet, the white press may have uncovered a hidden truth about Parsons’ life when they labeled her “Black,” or they may have simply been engaging in wishful thinking. During her life, two major rumors ascribing an African heritage to her surfaced in capitalist presses. One was little more than an empty rumor designed to discredit Parsons by linking her to a Black slave heritage.

The more credible rumor of Parsons’ slave origins came from a Texan freedman named Oliver Gathings who claimed she was his wife before she eloped with Albert Parsons without a proper divorce. This story broke toward the end of the first Haymarket trial when a reporter asked Parsons about Gathings. Parsons was indignant at this suggestion, stating, “I won’t rest under this false imputation any longer.” Albert himself did not deny the affair with Gathings’ wife or whisking her off, but he explicitly stated that that woman was not Parsons. He wanted to reassure “the world of the purity of the Indian and Spanish blood in her veins and of her good character.” Note how to Albert, Indian heritage was an advantage, while African heritage was so potentially immobilizing as to be slanderous. Gathings’ statements fueled the rumors that Parsons was born a slave—rumors which persist into the scholarly discussion today.

The more white journalists emphasized her African ancestry, the more Parsons claimed Mexican and Native American heritages to oppose them. Because so little was known about her early life, other than her birth in Texas, Parsons was free to create her own identity. She changed her maiden name with great frequency, most often using Gonzales, though she also used Diaz, Del Gather, Waller, Carter, and Hull at various points. She once said her parents were Marie del Gather and John Waller, both of whom  her biographer Carolyn Ashbaugh concluded “are probably fictitious,” while her death certificate listed them as Pedro Diaz and Marie Gonzales. By hiding any African American heritage she may or may not have possessed, Parsons further upset the capitalists’ depiction of anarchism.

Meanwhile, in the small body of scholarship, Parsons is usually ascribed at least a partial African heritage even though Basson, in a work dedicated to race politics, maintained that “the evidence concerning her purported African ancestry is limited” and “based almost entirely on Parsons’s appearance and on unsubstantiated rumors about her origins.” Paul Avrich, author of The Haymarket Tragedy (1984), initially called Parsons “a woman of black extraction,” building off the Ashbaugh biography’s opening statement that “Lucy Parsons was black.” Recent Haymarket historian Timothy Messer-Kruse described her as having “a richly mixed ethnic heritage that included African and Indian ancestors.” An anthology titled “We Must Be Up and Doing”: A Reader in Early African American Feminisms included an article by Parsons without ever contextualizing Parsons’ debated racial status (or her contested stance on feminism, which is a separate but equally complex debate). And lastly, in a commemorative essay on Haymarket, Arlene Meyers used all three, writing that her “racial heritage was Black, Mexican, and Indian, and she was probably born into slavery on the Texas frontier.” None of these, except Ashbaugh, acknowledged the debate over her racial identity.

Other scholars, such as Gale Ahrens, contextualize the debate some, though these rare accounts mostly summarize Ashbaugh’s conclusions, whom Basson criticized for making claims too large for limited circumstantial and fragmentary evidence. Ahrens, however, added to Ashbaugh’s research by examining Parsons’ activities and associations with non-whites to further the conclusion that Parsons was at least partially African, if not fully. Ahrens explained, “She did defend and raise funds for the Mexican Revolution of 1910. But beyond that, all we know is that we know even less about her association with Mexicans and Native Americans than we do about her association with African Americans.”

Ashbaugh’s research however is largely based off the Oliver Gathings story. Confusion over Gathings’ last name in the record lends itself well to Ashbaugh’s hypothesis that James G. and Philip Gatherings likely owned them both before emancipation.2 Furthermore, Parsons often used the maiden name “Del Gather,” the name of her Mexican uncle who raised her. Interestingly, as Ashbaugh briefly mentions once in her research notes, the letter combination “th” does not exist in Spanish. This, combined with all the spelling variations of Oliver’s last name and the similarities between “Del Gather,” and “Gatherings” shows the claim of African heritage is not entirely unfounded. When one considers that “del” means “of the” in Spanish, then Parsons’ use of “Del Gather” as a maiden name could signify her claim to Mexican heritage while secretly maintaining her original identity as the Gatherings’ slave or even simply as Oliver’s wife. Ashbaugh also cites slave schedules that show each of the Gatherings owned two slave girls about Parsons’ age and pointed out that Philip had a daughter named Lucy who was three years older than Parsons. She argues that it would not be unusual to name a slave child after the master’s child. However, all of these claims, while certainly not impossible, are far too inconclusive to prove she was born a slave or had African heritage.3

This is why detailing the complexity of the argument is important. It is not fair to state she was African, either partially or fully, or that she was born a slave, while dismissing her claims to the contrary. Nor is it fair to state she was purely Mexican and Native American per her claims, when her own name is in question because she purposefully changed it throughout her life. Her manipulation of her biographical facts rightfully calls into question the veracity of her claims of racial identity, however, it does not discount them either. Perhaps as Basson wrote, “It is quite possible that Parsons herself did not know the full details of her ancestry.” In seeking to make her seem more African American than what can be substantiated by the evidence available, scholars risk privileging one minority voice over another and ignoring Parsons’ right to her own identity. It is highly problematic that scholars who seek to reclaim her as an African American of renown focus solely on the unsubstantiated claim of Parsons being African American, as Zackodnik did by including Parsons in the African American Feminisms anthology without context.

However, whether or not she actually possessed any African heritage is less important than her perpetual denial of it, and the likely reasons she did that. As Basson wrote,

Parsons’s claim to an indigenous anarchist body . . . turned mainstream definitions of Americanism on their heads, suggesting that the real foreigners were white capitalists. Parsons’s physical and vocal presence as a leader in the anarchist movement also challenged attempts to construct an ascriptive profile of anarchism because unlike the majority of U.S. anarchists, Parsons was neither white nor male.

Loudly vocalizing her claimed identity as a female indigenous American working-class political radical directly contradicted the capitalist press’s attempts at creating a stereotypical anarchist. She did not stand in the background of the anarchist movement while the stereotypical foreign male anarchist hatched his schemes. She was at the forefront of the movement, publicly being an anarchist and simply not being who the capitalist press said was an anarchist.

  1. Lucy Parsons, “Mrs. Lucy E. Parsons: Her First Address in London at a Welcome Extended Her on Arrival,” in Alarm, 8 December 1888, in Carolyn Ashbaugh Papers, The Newberry Library, Chicago.
  2. The term “capitalist press” is used throughout the paper to differentiate from the radical presses, such as the ones for which Parsons worked on and wrote.
  3. Correspondence with Mrs. P.B. Price 1973-1974, in Carolyn Ashbaugh Papers, The Newberry Library, Chicago. The spelling of Oliver’s surname is debatable. Ashbaugh uses Gathings (13), as did the Chicago Herald article, while Rodney Estvan uses Gathering, Ahrens uses Gaithings (3), and Basson uses Gathens (159).
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