The Former Slave Who Became a Radical Agitator (But Never Admitted She’d Been a Slave)

tags: slavery, Confederacy, womens history, Lucy Parsons

Jacqueline Jones holds the Ellen C. Temple Chair in Women's History and the Mastin Gentry White Professorship in Southern History at the University of Texas at Austin. Winner of the Bancroft Prize for Labor of Love, Labor of Sorrow, her latest book is Goddess of Anarchy: The Life and Times of Lucy Parsons, American Radical (Basic Books, 2017).

When I first told friends and colleagues I was writing a biography of Lucy Parsons, I drew mostly blank stares. Many had heard of the Chicago Haymarket Square bombing on May 4, 1886, and at least some had heard of Albert Parsons, one of the four anarchists (wrongly) convicted and hanged for the deed. Few however were familiar with Albert’s wife and then widow Lucy Parsons; yet in her day she was famous—and notorious—as an agitator and orator, exhorting the white laboring classes to stage a violent revolution and destroy the capitalist system.

One of the enduring mysteries about Lucy Parsons—and one of the reasons that I decided to write a biography of her—has been the question of her origins. During much of her long life (1851-1942), Parsons claimed to be the daughter of Mexican and Native-American parents. Her light skin color prompted many casual observers to categorize her only as vaguely exotic. At the same time, at least some contemporary news articles claimed that she was of African descent. So where, I wondered, did she come from? In the process of answering this question I came to appreciate the bounty of digital resources available to historians today. I also confronted the challenge of navigating Reconstruction-era African-American history, when many former slaves changed their names and moved around, searching for safety and long-lost loved ones. In the course of my research, sheer luck of course played a part too.

In her 1976 biography Lucy Parsons: An American Revolutionary, Carolyn Ashbaugh, devoted only three pages to Parsons’s first twenty years. I began by checking out Ashbaugh’s contention that Parsons had lived in Waco, Texas, and at some point married a freedman named Oliver Gathings; but I could find no evidence in the 1870 McLennan County federal manuscript census of a Lucy Parsons, Lucy Gathings, or Oliver Gathings. (James J. Gathings was the name of a former slave owner who lived not far from Waco.)

Facing an early and frustrating dead end with the 1870 census, I decided to mine the riches of digitized newspapers, sources that were not readily available to Ashbaugh four decades ago. I used collections of the University of Texas libraries, including America’s Historical Newspapers; African-American Newspapers: The Nineteenth Century; Gale News Vault; and the New York Times. I used other newspapers through the Boston Public Library online resources (Boston Globe, Nineteenth Century U. S. Newspapers, and British Library Newspapers); the Library of Congress site “Chronicling America”; and Texas digitized newspapers (Portal to Texas History). I paid for a number of sites: Chicago Tribune, Genealogybank, Newsbank,, and Fold3. Then I plugged “Lucy Parsons” into the various search engines, limited the chronological parameters to 1870 to 1942, and saw what came up. It was hundreds of articles; I realized that the mainstream press covered Parsons obsessively, especially from 1886 until 1915 or so.

One of those articles I came to call the Rosetta Stone of Lucy Parsons’s life. Titled “Mrs. Lucy Parsons,” it was published by the St. Louis Globe-Democrat on September 18, 1886, and originated as “special correspondence of the Globe Democrat.” A reporter in Waco wrote the story to dispute Parsons’s recent claim that she was “of Indian-Mexican parentage.” The article went on to identify her mother Charlotte, the “house girl and slave of Dr. Taliaferro,” and Charlotte’s new husband Charlie Carter. Oliver Gathings made an appearance too, but the reporter noted that he now called himself Oliver Benton (later I learned that Benton was his father’s last name). Finally the article also claimed that Benton was the father of Parsons’s baby, an infant “now at rest in the Alley of the Brazos” (ie., deceased). This article made it clear that after emancipation both Oliver Benton and Charlie Carter had abandoned the name of their former owners (in Charlie’s case Crane) and assumed new names of their own choosing.

With these unverified clues I headed back to the 1870 federal manuscript census, and promptly found that on July 2, 1870, the Waco census taker had located Charlotte Carter, a black woman age 36 and born in Virginia, presiding over a household that included her children Lucia, 19, Tanner, 14, and Webster, 8. Their riverside tenement included two other apartments. In one was Jane Tallavan and her children, all born in Virginia; Tallavan is the phonetic pronunciation of Taliaferro. In another was Lucia Carter, 19, born in Virginia, along with her baby Champ, born in Texas, plus Lizzie Murphy and her children, and James Johnson, a single man of 25. It was clear that Charlotte had given the census taker information about her daughter, but that the official had also talked to Lucia in the separate apartment. I know that he talked to Lucia directly, because he listed her as a “mulatto.” When he talked to her mother, he recorded Lucia’s race as “black,” suggesting he had not yet seen her. I also located Oliver Benton in subsequent census years, as well as in the city directory. Consulting a Gathings family history I found that James J. Gathings had lived in Mississippi, where he had purchased Clara Gatherus and her son Oliver.

Online military records and land deeds helped me to pinpoint Dr. T. J. Taliaferro’s service to the Confederacy and also his first appearance in McLennan County. The Virginia-born Taliaferro was a Confederate surgeon who was captured in 1862 and held briefly in a prisoner-of-war camp in Illinois before being paroled and moving— forcibly removing—his enslaved workers to Texas during the war. In early 1863, he bought about two hundred acres in the north-central part of McLennan County. Right after the war, Charlotte took her daughter and two sons and fled the violent countryside to Waco, where Lucia attended the town’s first school for freed children. Oliver Benton reportedly paid for her tuition and books.

With the help of county clerks and archivists, I found a marriage record for Albert R. Parsons and Ella Hull on September 28, 1872. (In subsequent years Lucy would use “Ella”—or Eldine-- as her middle name, and Hull as her maiden name.) For most marriages the ledger includes the name of the officiant, but that space is left blank next to the names of the Parsonses; it was probably Waco Mayor B. F. Harris, a friend of the groom and a fellow Republican, who presided over the nuptials. The fact that Republicans controlled the state government opened a window for this interracial couple to marry, a window that would slam shut when the Democrats regained power the following year.

When the couple moved to Chicago in 1873, Lucia changed her name to Lucy. She never acknowledged that she had been born a slave. She concocted a fictional biography just as she was launching her first national speaking tour, in the fall of 1886, to raise money for the defense of Albert and his three comrades convicted of the Haymarket bombing. Albert was complicit in Lucy’s new identity; he claimed that he had met his future wife – a “charming young Spanish-Indian maiden”—while she was living with her uncle near Buffalo Creek, Johnson County. In fact the federal census lists no such households for the entire Civil-War era. In speaking to future census takers, Lucy would continue to lose track of whether it was her father who was supposedly born in Texas and her mother in Mexico, or vice versa.

However, in providing information for her two children’s birth certificates, she showed a great deal of candor. On both Albert Junior’s certificate (September 14, 1879) and Lulu’s (April 21, 1881), Lucy correctly listed Virginia as her birthplace. On the former document she gave her maiden name as “Lucy E. Parsons nee Carter” (again, correctly, since she had taken the name of her stepfather, Charlie Carter) and on the second she gave her maiden name as Hull. On this latter document she lists Lulu as her third child, perhaps a nod to baby Champ who died in Waco.

I was able verify many of the details of Lucy Parsons’s background from a variety of sources, and once in a while she and Albert even confirmed them—for example, the fact that they married in September of 1872. In the end, though, these details only seemed to deepen the mystery of the remarkable Mrs. Parsons, for she left little in the way of personal correspondence or self-reflective writings. That she felt compelled to hide her formative years in slavery ultimately took a toll on her, I believe; those who knew her considered her a difficult person, self-righteous and inclined to “bulldoze” those with whom she disagreed. In the end, modern technology played a pivotal role in documenting at least part of her past and adding to the enigma that was Lucia Carter.

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