Wyoming Has Long History of Racial Tolerance

Article excerpt

In many movies and history books, it was white cowboys, white settlers and white soldiers who fought the Indians and settled the West.

Harriett Elizabeth Byrd knows better.

Generations of her family homesteaded in Wyoming, rounded up wild horses and worked for the railroad. In 1988, she became Wyoming's first black state senator.

For more than a century, Wyoming has nurtured a small black community. Its schools were never segregated. Longtime black residents say that racism, while not unknown, never seemed as malignant as in many other states.

"I think Wyoming is just like what America used to be all about," said Byrd, 67. "Many people came to Wyoming to get away from the things that they didn't like. Most everybody came here because they were looking for a better way of life. Color did not make much difference."

But despite blacks' historic toehold here, how much of a presence they will have in the future is a question.

Hard economic times and limited job opportunities draw young men and women of all races to other states with larger cities. The exodus is most keenly felt in the state's tiny minority communities.

According to recent estimates, about 3,300 blacks live in Wyoming, fewer than 1 percent of the state population of about 427,000; that represents a slight decrease from the total in 1980.

Already, Wyoming's black ranching heritage has all but disappeared. Written and oral histories leave with those who move out.

"Any time you have a population moving out, you lose some of your heritage and history," said Dr. Roger D. Hardaway, an expert on black history in the West.

Immigrants who faced religious persecution, famine and war in their homelands found a new beginning in Wyoming. So did runaway slaves and the descendants of slaves.

And the harsh frontier life demanded that neighbors, regardless of race or color, rely on each other.

"In Western communities, if you worked hard and were honest, the fact that you were black really didn't make that much difference," said Hardaway, a historian at Northwestern Oklahoma State University. …