A reader once asked me to research the historic figures for which our local schools are named. This led to feature-length articles about Ulysses Grant, Elizabeth White, James Garfield, Eugene Field, Robert Louis Stevenson and Betsy Ross.
Of these illustrious figures, Garfield was self-educated, Stevenson was home-schooled, and Grant was an indifferent student. Others had more traditional educations and could be considered model students. Betsy Ross had the most questionable biography of any of them.
Born in Philadelphia in 1752, she became an upholsterer. She also made flags and sewed American flags for 50 years following the American Revolution. She did not achieve legendary status, though, until her grandson claimed, in 1870, that she had sowed the first American flag.
According to family tradition, General George Washington visited Ross in 1776 and commissioned her to create the first American flag. There is no archival evidence to substantiate this story and most historians dismiss it. Ross, though, was deemed a patriotic role model for young girls and a commemorative postage stamp was issued to honor her.
Betsy Ross may be the star of a comforting American fairy tale, but she does not deserve to have one of our schools named for her. It’s time to change the name. It’s not uncommon for school districts to change the names of schools. They do it to make the school’s namesake more relevant to today’s students.
Nathanial Hawthorne School is now Percy Julian Middle School. Ralph Waldo Emerson Junior High became Gwendolyn Brooks Middle School. In both cases, the names of long-celebrated white Americans were replaced by modern Black heroes.
Which leads me to nominate a woman of color to replace Betsy Ross.
Lucy Parsons never lived in Forest Park but she is buried here, in Forest Home Cemetery, close to the Haymarket Martyrs’ Monument, where Albert Parsons was laid to rest. There is no record that Lucy and Albert were formally married but she always claimed they were.
Lucy was born a slave in 1851. Albert had fought for the Confederacy but, after the Civil War, he agitated for Black civil rights. He was shot in the leg while helping Black people register to vote. Albert and Lucy moved to Chicago in 1873. She became a seamstress and opened her own shop. She helped start the Chicago Working Women’s Union.
After Albert was executed and became a Haymarket martyr, Lucy became an internationally famous speaker. She advocated for women’s rights and workers’ rights. She helped found the Industrial Workers of the World labor union. Lucy was more than a labor organizer. She published a biography of Albert and the speeches of the Haymarket martyrs. She was also a newspaper editor. She never stopped advocating for workers. The Chicago police tried to silence her for decades.
Lucy was 91 when she died in 1942 — in a house fire. Her legacy lives on, with new biographies highlighting her career. In 2004, the Chicago Park District named Lucy Ella Gonzalez Parsons Park in her honor, though this was opposed by the Fraternal Order of Police. Last year, the city dedicated an apartment development in her name with “100% affordable units.”
Parsons demonstrated a different form of patriotism than Ross. She expressed the patriotism of dissent. She identified injustices and demanded reforms. She was proud to be an anarchist but never called for violence. Lucy Parsons embodies the spirit of Forest Park. She was pro-labor and unafraid to speak truth to power.
So we can perpetuate the myth of Betsy Ross, or we can celebrate a woman who overcame incredible obstacles to bring her message of freedom to the world.