January 21 is Wyoming Equality Day. Perhaps you wondered this morning as you sipped your coffee about how Wyoming Equality Day originated? Cheyenne native and Wyoming state legislator Harriett Elizabeth “Liz” Byrd was the guiding individual behind it, although a “Wyoming Equality Day” was not her first intention. Byrd was the first black woman to serve in Wyoming’s House beginning in 1980. A few years later, she was elected to Wyoming’s Senate, and was the first black legislator to serve there.
Byrd’s parents, Robert “Buck” and Sudie Rhone, supplied her with an “outsider/within” legacy as described by Evelyn Haskell in a 2006 Annals of Wyoming article about Liz Byrd. Haskell explains that the outsider/within perspective is that of an individual who is outside the dominant culture, and yet has access to and intimate knowledge of the workings of the dominant culture. Buck Rhone’s family had settled in Wyoming in the 1870s, and Buck was the first African American child born in Albany County. Liz was born in 1926 with deep family roots already established in Wyoming.
This is not to say that she didn’t experience her share of racism. According to an interview with Byrd pasted into a scrapbook housed at the AHC, 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. When she applied to the University of Wyoming in 1944, Liz was told that, because she was African American, she would not be allowed to live in campus housing. In the end, she attended West Virginia State Teachers College, a historically black college, graduating in 1949 with a degree in education.
During Liz’s college years, she married James Byrd and the couple made Cheyenne their home, Liz teaching school and Jim working in law enforcement. The couple was soon raising a family of three children, two sons and one daughter. Liz was happy teaching school and didn’t originally have political ambitions.
It was the tragic death in 1979 of her younger brother, Robert, that led her into politics. Buck Rhone had high ambitions for his son Robert to gain public office and, after Robert’s death, this ambition was shifted to daughter Liz. Despite running a low-cost campaign, Liz was elected to the Wyoming House of Representatives in 1980.
In oral history interviews with Evelyn Haskell, Byrd described an atmosphere in the statehouse that was hostile to women, and to her in particular because she was a black woman. Of a total of 90 seats in both Wyoming’s House and Senate, only 14 were held by women. She found that some of her efforts to present and pass bills were hampered by the fact that a significant number of her female colleagues refused to support her bills; they were afraid of losing good committee assignments by supporting bills sponsored by Liz Byrd. Another complicating factor was Byrd often sponsored unpopular “special” legislation relating to human interests instead of those involving the state’s economic interests.
Her most important bill of national prominence, and the one that presented her with the most difficulty, was ratification of a Martin Luther King, Jr. Day in Wyoming. U.S. President Ronald Reagan signed a bill in 1983 that established Martin Luther King, Jr. Day as a nationally observed holiday, although it was not until 1986 that it was first observed.
The nine years she worked on the bill to mark a day in commemoration of Martin Luther King, Jr., were marked by strife and animosity. Wyoming state newspapers were filled with letters pro and con from the public and from her fellow legislators. Even one of Liz’s fellow teachers spoke out publicly against the bill. To finally gain passage of the bill, Byrd had to agree to add “Wyoming Equality Day” to the name, which became Martin Luther King, Jr./Wyoming Equality Day in 1990.
Liz Byrd went on to become the recipient of a number of awards and honors, one of the most notable is sharing the pages with Oprah Winfrey, Rosa Parks and other African American women of accomplishment in the 1989 book I Dream a World: Portraits of Black Women Who Changed America.
A number of events titled “Days of Dialogue” are planned on the University of Wyoming campus to commemorate Martin Luther King, Jr./Wyoming Equality Day. An upcoming schedule of events from January 31 through February 9 can be found at http://www.uwyo.edu/studentaffairs/mlkdod/.
The post originally appeared in 2017, but we thought it was worth running again with some additional photographs from Liz Byrd’s papers at the AHC. Much of the text is credited to Evelyn Haskell’s article, “Harriett Elizabeth ‘Liz’ Byrd: Wyoming Trail Blazer in Education and Politics,” published in Annals of Wyoming, Vol. 78, No. 1 (Winter 2006).