Searching for Lucy Parsons: A Racial Riddle

This is a guest post by Emily England, a senior history and anthropology double major with a museum studies minor at Luther College. When I heard about the research Emily conducted last semester on anarchist Lucy Parsons at the Newberry Library, I asked her to write up some of her findings and questions. I hope you enjoy finding out about Parsons like I did.

by Emily England

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.

Lucy Parsons, borrowed from here.

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.

In the late 1800s, particularly after the Haymarket “riot,” the white pro-capitalist press[3] 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. 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.”[4]

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 Indian 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.[5]

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.

Lucy Parsons, 1920, borrowed from NYU archives.

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.”[6] The Kansas City Times described her as having a “swarthy, half mulatto-half Indian face.”[7] 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.”[8] 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.[9] Parsons was indignant at this suggestion, stating, “I won’t rest under this false imputation any longer.”[10] Albert himself did not deny the affair with Gathings’ wife or whisking her off, but he explicitly stated that that woman was not Parsons.[11] He wanted to reassure “the world of the purity of the Indian and Spanish blood in her veins and of her good character.”[12] 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 Ashbaugh concluded “are probably fictitious,” while her death certificate listed them as Pedro Diaz and Marie Gonzales.[13] By hiding any African American heritage she may or may not have possessed, Parsons further upset the capitalists’ depiction of anarchism, and statements such as the above quote powerfully contradicted claims that anarchism could not be an American ideology.

Meanwhile, in the small body of scholarship, Parsons is usually ascribed at least a partial African heritage without discussing the debate, 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.”[14] Recent Haymarket historian Timothy Messer-Kruse described her as having “a richly mixed ethnic heritage that included African and Indian ancestors.”[15] Paul Avrich, author of The Haymarket Tragedy, initially called Parsons “a woman of black extraction,” building off the Ashbaugh biography’s opening statement that “Lucy Parsons was black.”[16] And, most intriguing to me, 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).[17] 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.”[18] None of these, except Ashbaugh, acknowledged the debate.

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.”[19]

Ashbaugh’s research however is largely based off the Oliver Gathings story. The 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.[20] 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.[21] 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.[22] However, all of these claims, while certainly not impossible, are far too inconclusive to prove she was born a slave or had African heritage.

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.”[23] 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.”[24] 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, publically being an anarchist and simply not being who the capitalist press said was an anarchist, regardless of whether or not she actually was. [25]


[1] Lauren Anderson here—feel free to ask Emily about the questions over Parsons and gender in the comments section.

[2] Lauren L. Basson, White Enough to Be American?: Race Mixing, Indigenous People, and the Boundaries of State and Nation (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2008), 162.

[3] 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. The “capitalist” presses had larger and more stable audiences and therefore a larger influence on public opinion compared to their radical counterparts. I did not study her treatment by the black press, in part because they became much more widespread after Parsons’ most active era. Most of the papers I used were the big Chicago papers (Tribune, Herald, Daily News, Inter-Ocean) as well as copies from newspapers across the country, like the Omaha Herald and Kansas City. The more politically conservative papers had a more racialized and hateful treatment of her, while the more liberal leaning papers wrote about her with some tolerance or amusement toward her activities.

[4] Basson, White Enough to Be American?, 158.

[5] Basson, White Enough to Be American?, 145; Lucy Parsons, “Mrs. Lucy E. Parsons: Her First Address in London at a Welcome Extended Her on Arrival,” in Alarm, 8 December 1888, in Ashbaugh MSS.

[6] “With the Friends of Anarchy,” Union Staff Correspondence, Dublin 1888, in Ashbaugh MSS.

[7] “Loud-Mouthed Treason: Mrs. Parsons Denounces The Law at Tobener’s Hall,” Kansas City Times, December 20, 1886, in Ashbaugh MSS.

[8] Schaack, Anarchy and Anarchists, 167.

[9] 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) while citing Ashbaugh’s 1976 book, so I use the spelling of the Herald and Ashbaugh.

[10] Ashbaugh, Lucy Parsons, 99.

[11] Ibid, 99-100.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid, 268, note 4.

[14] Basson, White Enough to Be American?, 162.

[15] Messer-Kruse, Haymarket Conspiracy, 4.

[16] Avrich, The Haymarket Tragedy, 14; Ashbaugh, Lucy Parsons, 6.

[17] Lucy Parsons, “Mrs. Parson’s Lecture [I am an anarchist…],” in “We Must Be Up and Doing”: A Reader in Early African American Feminisms, ed. Teresa C. Zackodnik (Buffalo, NY: Broadview Press, 2010), 132-135.

[18] Arlene Meyers, “The Haymarket Affair and Lucy Parsons: 100th Annviersary,” in The Radical Papers, ed. Dimitrios I. Roussopoulos (Montreal: Black Rose Books Inc., 1987), 36.

[19] Ahrens, “Introduction,” in Parsons, Lucy Parsons, ed. Ahrens, 19.

[20] Ashbaugh, Lucy Parsons, 267, note 4; Correspondence with Mrs. P.B. Price 1973-1974 in Ashbaugh MSS.

[21] Ashbaugh, unlabelled notes, in Ashbaugh MSS.

[22] Ashbaugh, Lucy Parsons, 267, note 4. Copies of schedules found in Ashbaugh MSS.

[23] Basson, White Enough to Be American?, 162.

[24] Basson, White Enough to Be American?, 158.

[25] Lauren Anderson again: I would add that Emily’s essay also highlights a question I’ve seen raised at ASALH and elsewhere, about how to write about black people who do not fit contemporary ideals of identity. I remember a panel several years ago that sought to complicate Booker T. Washington. After compelling papers, an older scholar stood and criticized the panelists for even considering that Washington might have been anything but a sell-out. I face this question with Juliette Derricotte, who embraced ideas of interracial cooperation which seem simplistic to many today. It seems likely that Parsons rejected a black identity because of the constraints that would have put on her activism. Yet, her story adds something to the discussion of “passing” narratives because she had to face down these rumors throughout her life and also because passing (if that was what she did) did not help her find a rich or easy life. What do you think—would being black have been detrimental enough to Parsons’ activism that it explains why she might have rejected that part of her identity (if it was part)?

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Lauren Kientz Anderson

I am an Assistant Professor at Luther College in Decorah, IA. I graduated with a PhD from Michigan State University in 2010 and then had a post-doctoral fellowship at the University of Kentucky from 2010-2012. My research and teaching interests are Black thought in the interwar era, Black Internationalism, Black Women’s History, the global anti-apartheid movement, and LGBT history. My first book, “Speaking to the World: Black American Women and Global Interracialism, 1918-1939″ argues that “interracialism” was one of the most important political theories of race relations in the interwar era. It was based on the simplistic idea that if elites interacted, systemic racism, including violence and lynching ,would end. The rare scholars who discuss interracialism suggest that it was a white-led phenomenon, but the book focuses the discussion on black women’s support for and critique of interracialism. In addition to interracialism, the work analyzes black internationalism through these same black women. I assert that when black women engaged joyfully in religion and played with their identity abroad, they defied Michael O. West’s contention that the black international was defined by struggle. The work incorporates material from over twenty archives in the United States and Europe. You can explore aspects of my argument in my article, “A Nauseating Sentiment, a Magical Device, or a Real Insight? Interracialism at Fisk University in 1930.” I also have an article about my global anti-apartheid course in the Spring 2014 issue of Radical History Review and have several articles in various stages of the publication journey. For my course syllabi, the latest information about my publications, conference papers, and links to my posts from two years as a regular contributor to the Society for US Intellectual History’s blog see my academia profile. In my free time, I paint and do a bit of creative writing while attempting to balance my aged cat and laptop.

Comments on “Searching for Lucy Parsons: A Racial Riddle

  • Avatar

    I am Rebecca Grace Parsons Godsalve searching for my father’s birth parents. He was born September 22 or 23 , 1930 in or near Basset, Texas and the courthouse containing his records destroyed by fire apparently. One of my children, myself, and one grandchild display certain features that are negro or first Nations. I am interested in genealogy of my father.

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      Glad to hear from you. I think that it would be rather improbable that you are related directly to Lucy. Lucy herself only had two or three children. The two documented children died in Chicago and likely spent no time in Texas at all. Lucy’s daughter Lulu died before reaching child-bearing age and her son was committed to an Illinois mental institute at age 18 and died there several years later. Lucy may have had a third child, but that child would have been born between her two documented children in Chicago and likely died early on, given the rarity of documentation surrounding his or her existence.

      It may be possible you could be related to Albert Parsons directly, but the Parsons family had roots in America from before the Revolutionary War. Albert himself was born in Alabama and had at least nine siblings. He was orphaned in his teenage years and moved into a sister’s household in Texas. He also spent some time with an older brother in Texas. It seems to me that if your father is at all related to one of these Parsons here, his father would have had to be the illegitimate son of either Albert or his elder brother William. Your paternal grandfather would have had to be an illegitimate offspring of the Parsons brother in question, given that interracial marriages in Texas were illegal for quite a long time. However, given their American lineage, it would seem that the Parsons surname is not uncommon and more probable that you may be descended from a different branch of the Parsons line in America.

      That said, Albert did admit to at least one affair in Texas before he met Lucy and I suppose it is not impossible a child may have resulted from that union, but that would have been in the 1860s-1870s. Albert was certainly unaware of any children which may have resulted from his illicit affair(s). He and Lucy met around Waco, Texas, which seems to be about 3.5 hours by modern car from Bassett, Texas, and Albert definitely traveled around Texas after the Civil War, so that again does not rule this out.

      Albert’s elder brother William spent the majority of his adult life in Texas and therefore would have had more time in the region to produce an illegitimate son. However, my research did not cover William Parsons at all, so I am not at all able to speak as to whether or not he may or may not have ever had offspring with a woman of color.

      So if you’re related to Albert Parsons directly, it would have to have been that your father was born to an illegitimate son of Albert Parsons and an unknown woman of color, most probably the woman in question of the Oliver Gathings debate. That woman would have had to have had a son and given that son the surname of Albert and not the man she was legally married to (as Albert had supposedly “spirited” her away from her legal husband, Oliver). And doing that would have made it clear to everyone that that was an illegitimate child and likely taken away any chance at inheritance that kid would ever have had. This seems to me a rather unlikely string of events, but then again, I’m not sure what counts as “likely” in the case of Albert and Lucy. So I’m sorry I can’t help you very well, but my best conclusion is that it’s not impossible you’re directly related to Albert Parsons, but also not necessarily the most likely scenario.

      Good luck with your research!

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    I have no idea what your ethnicity is – but I have family from Texas from that time period – and am a genealogical researcher and anthropologist, as well as being black – with a mixed heritage.
    One only has to look at Parson’s to identify that she is black – and believe me, I have black ancestors who looked phenotypically white.

    What is far more interesting is exploring why she had to “pass” for something other than what she was, and to understand that within an historical context.

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    Lucy Parsons visited England and Scotland in November 1888 on a speaking tour timed to coincide with the first anniversaries of Chicago’s ‘Haymarket’ hangings (11th November) and London’s ‘Bloody Sunday’ (13th November). She spoke at the London home of William Morris on 15th November. This is how Morris described her in a letter to his daughter Jenny.
    ‘She is a curious looking woman: no signs of European blood in her, Indian with a touch of negro; but speaks pure Yankee’.

    As you point out, Lucy Parsons’ appearance led others beside Morris to conclude that she had black ancestry, something she and Albert Parsons strenuously denied. A clue to the answer to this question may lie in her claim that her father was a ‘civilised’ Creek Indian. In a posting on The Root – ‘High Cheekbones and Straight Black Hair’ – Henry Louis Gates Jr refers to the general lack of opportunity for African and Native American intermingling in the eighteenth and nineteenth-centuries, but goes on to say,

    ‘The real major exception in American history to the absence of contact between Native Americans and African Americans … was with the so-called Five Civilized Tribes – the Creek, the Choctaw, the Cherokee, the Chickasaw and the Seminole. … They were known as ‘civilized’, in part, because they owned black slaves. … As (Barbara) Krauthamer, author of the recently published Black Slaves, Indian Masters: Slavery, Emancipation, and Citizenship in the Native American South told me … ‘In the Creek nation, there is evidence of forced contact and childbearing but also of more consensual relationships, when Creeks incorporated runaway slave women from the southern states into their own communities and families.’

    If she had black ancestry it may be entirely entirely possible that Lucy Parsons knew nothing of it. Be that as it may, it was in addressing her welcomers in London that she paraded her ‘genuine American’ identity:

    ‘Friends and Fellow Comrades, Ladies and Gentlemen, I am somewhat abashed at your marvellous reception, not in numbers but in genuine heartfelt enthusiasm. As you know, this is the first time that I have ever stood where the great Atlantic washes the eastern hemisphere. … In this hall tonight is grouped perhaps all the nations of the earth, or nearly all. … 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; … I represent the genuine American. I don’t say this from any national feeling of boundary lines … I am one whose gospel is that of one of the promoters of the Declaration of Independence – Thomas Paine. His motto was “The world is my country, and to do good my religion”.’

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