A few days after we moved to Casper from Cheyenne in 1999, my 12-year-old son asked me something I’d been wondering myself: “Dad, where are all the black people?”
Wyoming’s capital city can’t be described as even remotely diverse, with an African-American population of about 3.6 percent. But it still tops Casper, which can only claim a 1.9 percent black citizenry, according to U.S. Census Bureau estimates. African Americans make up less than 1 percent of the entire state’s population, helping make Wyoming the ninth whitest state in the nation.
Wyoming’s small population has given us the opportunity to know our neighbors as individuals, not just as members of a category. That saturation of real, human relationships — still a life-and-death necessity in some of the more remote areas — is one of several reasons people here have a particularly hard time understanding the kind of hatred on display in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Like the rest of the nation, Wyomingites were shocked by the violence perpetrated by the white supremacists, and by President Donald Trump’s abhorrent suggestion that the murderous mob included some “very fine people.” Even though the hate-filled alt-right groups invaded the city brandishing weapons and torches and chanting epithets against minorities, Trump disgracefully inferred that both sides were responsible for the violence.
Seventy percent of Wyoming’s 2016 presidential election ballots may have been cast for Trump, but that doesn’t mean we’ll abide Nazis marching in our streets or an ambiguous response to evil.
Wyoming has shown that white power groups are not welcome. The Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks the activities of hate groups, has listed very few in Wyoming over the years and none that has ever had a large membership. There are reportedly pockets of Ku Klux Klan members scattered throughout the state, particularly in Campbell County, but no organized group.
When radical domestic terrorists like the KKK have tried to make inroads in Wyoming, their attempts have, thus far, been loudly rejected.
On Jan. 15, 1996, I covered a protest on the steps of the Capitol in Cheyenne that included a dozen Klansmen and more than 200 counter-protesters.
I remember it as an ugly, surreal day. KKK National Director Thomas Robb, flanked by members holding flags, appeared at a podium after bagpipe music was blasted over the loudspeakers. His hateful rant focused on blacks, illegal aliens and gays. He reserved special venom for the late Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., whom he claimed did not deserve his own holiday.
Many of the counter-protesters — separated from the Klan by an orange police blockade — greeted the Klan with middle-finger salutes and chants like “We don’t need no hate today! We don’t need no KKK!”
Prior to the state granting the KKK a permit for the protest, Gov. Jim Geringer said that while the Klan isn’t welcome in Wyoming, officials can’t prevent them from exercising their rights to free speech. I agree, and wish I could have felt that allowing the protest was some kind of testament to the First Amendment. But when I headed home that night, I was still upset that such a symbol of hate had desecrated the place where I went to work everyday.
The only good news was that largely because of a significant police presence, no one was injured at the protest.
While I’m confident that what happened in Charlottesville will never happen in Wyoming, I realize there are some residents of the state — I hope not many — who do agree with the outrageous statements made by the president and actually sympathize with the promoters of racism.
And make no mistake — Wyoming has its own history of shameful racist incidents.
During the Rock Springs Massacre of September 1885, 28 Chinese miners were killed and 15 injured in a labor dispute. It was five years before Wyoming’s statehood when white miners, angered their Chinese counterparts were being hired by Union Pacific’s Coal Department for lower wages, burned 78 Chinese homes.
No one was held accountable for the deaths. A Sweetwater grand jury refused to indict any of the 16 men arrested, declaring that “no one has been able to testify to a single criminal act committed by any known white person that day.”
The Wind River Indian Reservation has seen all too many hate crimes. One of the most highly publicized happened just recently. On July 18, 2015, a white man shot two members of the Northern Arapaho tribe in their beds at an addiction recovery center. One died and the other was critically injured. The shooter, a Riverton city parks employee, reportedly said he was hunting for “park rangers” — a slur used mostly in reference to Native Americans who drink alcohol in city parks.
And who can forget the “Black 14?” In 1969 the University of Wyoming dismissed 14 black football players for their protest of anti-black Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints policies before the UW-Brigham Young University game. Support for the 14 black athletes was strong at UW, but much of the state was divided about what became a national controversy.
The horror in Virginia caused me to recall what happened a few years ago when I was at a poker table in Casper with some acquaintances. One was a burly oil worker I knew little about — beyond his gruff appearance and exceptional talent as a poker player.
He launched into a story that featured a co-worker he described as “a colored boy.” The rest of us white players sat uncomfortably silent. We were waiting to see what the black woman at our table would do.
She was obviously upset, but in a calm voice she explained that she found the term “colored boy” very offensive. It was just as bad as the “N-word,” she said, adding that she knew he wouldn’t use that word.
This gentle giant melted before our eyes. “I never knew that,” he said, apologetically. “No one ever told me that before.” There was shame in his eyes. He promised he’d never use the term again, and though I only saw him a few times after that, I believe he kept his word.
There are signs that Wyoming is becoming more diverse, which is good for the state. According to the U.S. Census Bureau the state’s minority population increased by more than 18 percent between 2010 and 2015. If any of these new residents of color bring half the character and integrity of the late Harriett Elizabeth “Liz” Byrd, we’re sure to benefit.
Never miss a Drake’s Take? Support WyoFile at Old Bill’s Fun Run and have your donation partially matched
Ms. Byrd of Cheyenne was the first black member to serve in both the Wyoming House and Senate. Byrd was an optimist who persevered through the defeat of nine bills she sponsored to make Martin Luther King Jr. Day a Wyoming holiday. In the end, she saw Dr. King finally honored — albeit with an amendment brought by her white colleagues for “Wyoming Equality Day” added to the bill.
But as you might expect, she experienced and fought discrimination throughout her life. Her race kept her from being hired as a teacher in Wyoming. She ultimately became an award-winning educator beloved by generations of students. As a teenager she was once refused service at a drugstore. White students threw the ice from their drinks over the counter in protest and walked out with her.
I like to think that such solidarity in the face of hatred still carries the day in the Equality State, and that it always will — no matter who seeks to divide us.