Women of the Wobblies – #1, Lucy Parsons

As part of the run up to our Women of the Wobblies event, I’ve decided to write a few articles about historical women of note who have been active within the IWW. It’s a pretty rich and varied history, so I hope that these will be enjoyable (or at least informative) reads. Without further ado:

Lucy Parsons

1853, Texas – 1942, Chicago, Illinois

Lucy Parsons was a founding member of the IWW and was one of two known female activists present at it’s founding convention in June 1905 (along with Mary Harris Jones, more commonly known as Mother Jones). Her first involvement in the meeting was insisting there be a woman appointed to the ways and means committee [1], which had just been created in order to discuss hiring a stenographer to record said meeting. Meetings were slower back then.

Renowned throughout her life as a fearsome orator, her most memorable speech at the founding conference asked attendees to consider that the usual “might makes right” (Parson’s words) approach to union democracy, where the number of workers any given delegate represented gave them more voting power in a “force of numbers” had “never made a right on earth”. She asked us to consider the very downtrodden and most-likely unorganised portions of society, which would go on to shape the focus the IWW has today.

I entered my name here, and I think others did, because we had eyes to see misery, we had ears to hear the cry of the downcast and miserable of the earth, we had a heart that was sympathetic, and we believed that we could come here and raise our voice and mingle it with yours in the interest of humanity. So that is the great audience that I represent. I represent those people, those little children who, after my twenty-five years residence in Chicago, I know are in the factories. I entered here as a delegate to represent that great mass of outraged humanity, my sisters whom I can see in the night when I go out in Chicago, who are young and fair and beautiful, but who are compelled to sell the holy name of womanhood for a night’s lodging. I am here to raise my voice with them, and ask you to put forth from this organization a declaration of principles and a constitution that shall give them hope in the future, that they shall be enrolled under the banner of this organization. [2]

Persons was born Lucia Eldine Gonzalez in 1953. She was of Native American, African American and Mexican ancestry. It’s likely that her parents were slaves but it is not known if she was born into slavery. She married Albert Parsons, a former confederate soldier, in 1871. The couple were forced to flee north due to the uproar surrounding their interracial marriage during the enactment of the Jim Crow segregation laws and settled in Chicago.

In Chicago Lucy and Albert began in earnest their lives as anarchist organisers. Albert had started his political life as founder of Republican newspaper the Waco Spectator. He took the then-unpopular editorial position of accepting the terms of surrender from the Civil War and the Reconstruction measures that would grant former slaves political rights. For his trouble, he “incurred thereby the hate and contumely of many of my former army comrades, neighbors, and the Ku Klux Klan.” After travelling the Midwest in 1873, Albert shifted his allegiance to Socialism, later Anarchism and launched the radical broadsheet The Alarm in 1884.

Lucy, for her part, wrote for both The Alarm and another Chicago newspaper called The Socialist and true to her sentiments at the founding conference, was an activist for political prisoners, people of color, the homeless and women. Always a sharp dresser, Lucy ran a dress shop to support her family after Albert was blacklisted in the Chicago printing trade for his involvement with the 1877 Chicago Railroad strike. She and friend Lizzie Swank used the shop to host meetings of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union after-hours. Lucy was often considered more dangerous than her husband by the Chicago law enforcement due to her uncompromising support of propaganda by the deed [3] and the fact that she was a visible black woman that refused to assume the role of homemaker, a notion that was unheard of to even most radicals at the time. In decades to come, the Chicago Police Department would describe a 60 year old Lucy as “more dangerous than a thousand rioters”.

The couple’s involvement in labour organising continued to snowball and on May the 1st 1886 Lucy, Albert and their two children Lulu and Albert Jr led a crowd of 80,000 down Michigan Avenue in support of the 8-hour day. This has since been recognised as the first May Day Parade. The parade snowballed into a strike and Albert traveled to Cincinnati to lead a second parade where he assured a later rally that victory was at hand. On May the 4th Albert addressed another rally at Haymarket Square back in Chicago, this gathering was a protest against the police violence that had occurred on May the 3rd when police fired on strikers at the McCormick Reaper Works, killing six. By 10pm the crowd was already beginning to disperse for the night but a large group of policemen came to forcefully remove those who remained. During the ensuing stand-off, a bomb was thrown into the square and exploded, killing one policeman and wounding others. Gunfire erupted, resulting in the deaths of 4 protesters, 7 police and the wounding of some 130 others. The events became known as the Haymarket Affair.

Lucy Parsons’ mug shot after being arrested at the protest at Hull House in 1915

Albert had already retired to Zeph’s Hall in the next street for a beer when events took a turn but that didn’t stop police arresting him and six others for allegedly plotting the attack due to their connections to the anarchist movement. Despite the best efforts of corporate lawyer William Perkins Black who ruined his reputation in the business world defending the men and the testimony of several witnesses that none of the seven threw the bomb, six of the defendants were sentenced to death by hanging. The only man to escape a death sentence was Oscar Neebe, who hadn’t even been at the square on the day. Two days before his execution, a letter from Albert was printed in The Alarm which concluded:

To other hands are now committed that task which was mine, in the work and duty, as editor of this paper. Though fallen, wounded perhaps unto death, in the battle for liberty, the standard — the press — which my hands bore aloft in the midst of the struggle is caught up by other hands, and will be again and again, if needs, till the crimson banner waves in triumph over the enemies of peace, brotherhood, and happiness.

And now to all I say: Falter not. Lay bare the inequities of capitalism; expose the slavery of law; proclaim the tyranny of government; denounce the greed, cruelty, abominations of the privileged class who riot and revel on the labor of their wage-slaves.

Lucy wasted no time honoring her husband’s plea. It’s not hard to imagine having her partner taken from her as a result of what was widely regarded even at the time as a huge miscarriage of justice hardened her resolve as an activist. Not to mention the fact that she was arrested with her children when she attempted to enter the gallows to see him for the last time, forced to strip and searched for bombs. She was held naked in a cell with her children until the hanging was over. The years that followed were a dark time for Lucy, who had to live on eight dollars a week granted to her by the Poineer Aid and Support Association, a group formed to support the families of the Haymarket martyrs and other labour activists.

Within a year of Albert’s execution Lucy was writing for the French anarchist journal Les Temps Nouveaux and traveled to Britain alongside William Morris and Peter Kropotkin. She founded a periodical called Freedom: A Revolutionary Anarchist-Communist Monthly and was often arrested for giving public speeches or distributing radical literature. Having helped found the IWW in 1905, as well as editing it’s Chicago Newspaper Liberator, her attention was increasingly turned to poverty among workers in the Windy City. She organised the Chicago Hunger Demonstrations and succeeded in winning the American Federation of Labor, the Socialist Party and Jane Addams’ Hull House to her cause. One of the larger demonstrations occurred on the 17th of January 1915 when a huge crowd crammed into Hull House to hear speeches before marching to the financial district, containing the various hotels and rich men’s clubs. Police gathered outside the meeting hall but were unsuccessful in preventing the march, though they attacked demonstrators constantly:

At one point, an Episcopal priest, Irwin St. John Tucker (known amoung the poor as Friar Tuck) picked up and walked with a banner the police had thrown to the ground. Appropriately, it’s message was “Give Us This Day Our Daily Bread.” The priest, Lucy Parsons, five other women and fifteen men were arrested. [4]

It was on the morning of this demonstration that Ralph Chaplin finished writing the well known IWW song Solidarity Forever, which was sung on the way to Hull House. Parsons led some of the first sit down strikes in American history and went on to do the same in the Argentinian factory takeovers of the period.

“My conception of the strike of the future is not to strike and go out and starve, but to strike and remain in, and take possession of the necessary property of production.” [5]

Parsons in 1920

In her later decades, Parson worked for the National Committee of the International Labor Defense, a communist-led organization that defended labor activists and unjustly-accused African Americans such as the Scottsboro Nine and Angelo Herndon (the latter receiving justice after a five year struggle). It is believed that Parsons joined the Communist Party USA around this time, though historical sources vary. She had begun to chafe with the anarchist movement decades earlier, notably with Emma Goldman; their relationship being one of comradely disagreement or intense personal conflict depending on the historical source. Goldman and her followers saw the question of free love as paramount to the movement at that time, whilst Parsons felt that was unimportant in the face of labour organising and that women’s oppression existed as a function of capitalism. Candace Falk wrote “No doubt there was an undercurrent of competitiveness between the two women. Emma generally preferred center stage” and suggested that Goldman sought to push risqué (for the time) sexual and kinship discourse to “the center of a perennial debate among anarchists about the relative importance of such personal issues”. Despite this, Lucy continued to give “fiery” [6] public speeches well into her 80s despite failing eyesight. In one of her more self-reflective statements after a long life on struggle she remarked:

“Oh, Misery, I have drunk thy cup of sorrow to its dregs, but I am still a rebel.”

Lucy Parsons died on March the 7th 1942 in a house fire. Her lover, George Markstall, died the next day from injuries he received while trying to save her. She was believed to be 89 years old. Upon her death police wasted no time seizing her library of over 1,500 books and all her personal papers, though one did resurface years later: her copy of Signs of William Morris’ Change: Seven Lectures Delivered on Various Occasions which bore the inscription: “To Lucy E Parsons from William Morris November 15, 1888” a “Property of Federal Bureau of Investigation US Department of Justice” stamp and some minor smoke damage was sold in an auction in England. Memorials to her legacy include the Lucy Parsons Center in Boston, a memorial to her life in Wicker Park, Chicago and Lucy Ella Gonzales Parsons Park in Belmont/Cragin, Chicago.

[1] https://www.iww.org/about/founding/part3

[2] https://www.iww.org/culture/library/founding/part4.shtml

[3] A Word To Tramps – Lucy Parsons

[4] America Before Welfare – Franklin Folsom

[5] Red November, Black November: Culture and Community in the Industrial Workers of the World – Salvatore Salerno

[6] Who Loves Lucy? – Chicago Tribune

Please send corrections / requests for the next article to @tomvahkiin

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