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Sunday, September 5, 1993 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Wyoming's Unique Black Heritage On The Endangered List? -- Harder Economic Times, Fewer Jobs Now

Dallas Morning News

CHEYENNE, Wyo. - 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.

Past generations of her family homesteaded in Wyoming, rounded up wild horses and worked for the railroad that was once this state's economic lifeline. 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," says 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 in what was once some of the wildest territory of the Old West, how much of a presence they will have in the future is a question.

Hard economic times and limited job opportunities, particularly in technical or professional fields, draw young men and women of all races to other states with larger cities. The exodus is most keenly felt among 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 and 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. And a part of Wyoming's ethnic and racial diversity threatens to fade away.

"Any time you have a population moving out, you lose some of your heritage and history," says Dr. Roger 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 seeking opportunities that the South would not offer.

And the sometimes-harsh realities of 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," says Hardaway, a historian at Northwestern Oklahoma State University. "The areas were so sparsely populated that people were glad to see anybody move there."

RACIALLY TOLERANT STATE

Even in the West, Wyoming had a reputation for racial tolerance, at least toward blacks.

"Wyoming allowed black men to vote, and it was the only one of the Rocky Mountain states that didn't have it forced on them by Washington," Hardaway notes. "That's another indication that Wyoming was probably a little more tolerant."

Interracial families find Wyoming more tolerant than many other places, some blacks say.

ECONOMY HAS CHILLING EFFECT

But life in Wyoming comes with a price: The state's sour economy translates into few job opportunities, for blacks and whites alike.

"A lot of people come here with the military," says Carroll Jones, who came to Wyoming with the Air Force in 1964 and is now curator of photography at the state museum. "They like the area. They stay. And their children attend school. But the population will fluctuate. When their children finish their education here, they leave the state because there's nothing here to hold them. Most of our jobs are minimum wage."

Byrd, the former state senator, says she fears that there may come a time when Wyoming's dwindling black population may be mostly senior citizens and military retirees. Two of her three adult children live out of state.

And though the state's virtues are touted by many of the blacks who live there, there are times when it falls short of a utopia for the longtime residents and those who may stay only for a short time.

Museum official Jones, who grew up in Virginia, says it would be wrong to suggest that Wyoming hasn't had problems with racism and discrimination. Or that all of the problems have gone away.

Historically, Wyoming had a never-enforced law that called for segregated schools. Interracial marriages were once outlawed.

Pioneering black ranchers lost their land, many because they couldn't secure loans to tide them through hard times. Taylor Haynes, a urologist, rancher and chairman of the Pole Mountain Cattlemen's Association, is believed to be the only black rancher in the state. And Cheyenne is still home to a fraternal organization that excludes blacks.

James Byrd, 67, Byrd's husband and Wyoming's first black U.S. marshal, recalls the days of de facto segregation when he was stationed in Cheyenne just after World War II.

"There were a lot of places you never went because they didn't want our business or they would not serve you," says Byrd, who grew up in Newark, N.J. The operator of a movie theater, he remembers, would direct blacks to the balcony by saying, "For the best seating, the stairway to your right, please."

In her youth in Cheyenne, Byrd had mixed experiences because of her race.

REFUSED SERVICE IN STORE

As a high-school student, she was refused service in a Cheyenne drugstore. Her white classmates threw the ice from their drinks over the counter and walked out.

"They couldn't understand why it was that way," she says of her friends.

Jones notes some positive developments over the years. When working as a job counselor in the late '60s, he learned that school advisers did not particularly encourage black students to consider college or to stay in school if they were having academic problems.

"If you weren't a good sports player at the time, your hopes of going to a college or a university totally depended on your parents being able to pay," Jones says. "This has all changed over the years, and it has changed mainly because we do have black educators in the system."

He was surprised to learn on his arrival in Wyoming that many of the state's blacks didn't embrace the civil-rights movement with the fervor to which he was accustomed in Virginia. But, he adds, the prejudice encountered in Wyoming was not the same type of widespread injustice that galvanized blacks in the South.

Copyright (c) 1993 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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