How the FBI lost Lucy Parsons

Bureau files handed over to the National Archives are often provided inaccurate tracking numbers, undercutting efforts at preservation

Written by JPat Brown

In order to preserve their value to the historic record, FBI files on prominent individuals and groups are routinely handed over to the National Archives for safekeeping. It’s a nice idea. It would be even nicer if anybody could remember what exactly they handed over and where they put it.

Earlier this year, we ran a crowdsourced campaign to request FBI files on famous women. One of the first names on that list was Lucy Parsons, the labor organizer and activist whose name has become synonymous with people doing the kind of work that should be done.

We filed the request, and a month later, the FBI wrote back, saying that Parsons had, unsurprisingly, made the cut, and records had already been sent to NARA.

They did, however, provide the specific reference numbers for the Parsons files, which should make tracking them down in Archives a cinch.

“Should” being the operative word here.

We refiled the request with Archives and provided said reference numbers. About a week later, we heard back - those numbers weren’t for Lucy Parsons, but 30 years of investigatory files on the Communist Party of the United States, consisting of “approximately 178,000 pages in 71 boxes.”

With no ability to narrow the search any further, and Parsons at best a definite maybe in any of the files, the request was closed as overly burdensome, and we were directed back to the FBI to begin the whole process all over again.

Sadly, this is far from an isolated incident - just a few months earlier, a request for the FBI files on Dorothy Parker was similarly rerouted to NARA. In that case, the numbers provided by the FBI referred to a file where she was only mentioned in passing, and another file regarding a completely different woman who happened to share Dorothy’s maiden name.

Considering the FBI’s less than stellar track record with record keeping, we applaud their efforts to ensure the long-term preservation of these valuable, first-hand accounts of the people and events that shaped history.

But if nobody can find the damn thing, it kinda defeats the point.


Image via Wikimedia Commons and is licensed under CC BY 2.0