Credit Alessandra Montalto/The New York Times
Lucy Parsons would stand out today, so one can imagine the scene she created as a woman in the second half of the 19th century espousing anarchy for the purpose of overthrowing capitalism. An African-American born into slavery, Parsons grew up to fashion a story about herself, claiming to be the daughter of Mexican and Native American parents. In her new biography, “Goddess of Anarchy,” Jacqueline Jones writes that Parsons “rejected a personal historical or ethnic identity in favor of presenting herself as the champion of the laboring classes; that, she thought, was all that people needed to know about her.” Ms. Jones, who won the Bancroft Prize in 1986 for her book “Labor of Love, Labor of Sorrow: Black Women, Work, and the Family, from Slavery to the Present,” teaches in the history department at the University of Texas at Austin. Below, she talks about the new information she unearthed about Parsons, the way Parsons captivated crowds and much more.
When did you first get the idea to write this book?
I’ve taught an American history survey for many years, and I’m always looking to introduce my students to interesting women from the past. Lucy Parsons has stood out for her politics. The last biography of her, by Carolyn Ashbaugh, came out in 1976. That book provided a really good outline of her life. It was very laudatory. Ashbaugh wanted to portray her in the best possible light, and that’s not hard to do. She was a formidable person. But a lot of the sources that I found were not in Ashbaugh’s book, just because they weren’t accessible to her. There’s always been a mystery surrounding Parsons’ origins. It was time to dig into her past and see where she came from, especially since we have all these new digital resources.
What’s the most surprising thing you learned while writing it?
There were lots of surprising things, because Parsons wasn’t always honest about her life and her background. Only three pages of Ashbaugh’s biography are devoted to the first 20 years or so of her life because it was hard to find out where she came from. I managed to trace that. She was born to an enslaved woman in Virginia, in 1851. She always denied she had been born a slave; she assumed a whole new identity for herself.
I was able to piece together her life because I found the Rosetta stone in, of all places, the St. Louis Globe-Democrat in 1886, which gave the name of Parsons’ mother and former owner. I confirmed that information through a variety of sources. One of the complicating factors was that there were a lot of name changes. After freedom, a lot of slaves abandoned the name of their owner and took a new last name.