Author, Wyoming historian, and sixth generation Laramie native Kim Viner wrote a wonderful article in WyoHistory.org about Carrie Burton Overton, the University of Wyoming’s first African American female student. In this post I’d like to spotlight information that Kim discovered. I encourage you to read Kim’s article for a more complete account of this most interesting woman.
Carrie Burton (1888-1975) prospered despite the odds stacked against her as a young African American woman growing up in Laramie, Wyoming. Her mother, Katie, was born into slavery in Missouri. Katie married three times and had two children, Benny and Carrie. Misfortune marked her first two marriages with the death of her first husband and imprisonment for burglary and attempted rape of her second. Her third marriage to Thomas Price was more long lasting and provided Carrie with a father figure and a mentor as she developed into a piano prodigy.
Painful experiences marked Carrie’s early life, including molestation, Benny’s accidental drowning, and an impulsive runaway attempt. Then there were her experiences with racism. In a 1969 oral history interview Carrie remembered being taunted by other children. “They just called me ‘black.’ They’d call me ‘nigger’—some of those kids—and I’d call them any name that I could find to call them and we’d be friends.” Carrie also recalled that after playing piano for Laramie leader Jane Ivinson, the housekeeper would wipe off the keys.
At age 15, Carrie entered UW Preparatory School where she became a certified stenographer and honed her piano skills. After graduation, President Aven Nelson was among those at UW who encouraged her to apply to Howard University in Washington, DC. Their glowing recommendations and Carrie’s own acumen gained her acceptance to Howard. Jane Ivinson and others sponsored a 1908 fundraising concert to help pay her college expenses. In the 1969 oral history, Carrie recalled, “I have found there is no place like Laramie for good people. Everybody helped. Everybody in town felt we were family.” (Emphasis in original transcript.)
Life in Washington was initially challenging for Carrie. Her letter (below) to the Laramie Boomerang mentions illness and hard work in her new environment. “I … worried myself sick and was under the doctor’s care for three weeks,” she wrote.
Carrie eventually found happiness. After receiving a music diploma from Howard in 1913, she married George Overton, principal of the “colored schools” in Cumberland, Maryland. They moved to New York City in the early 1920s where Carrie did stenography work. Her education continued. She attended the prestigious Juilliard School of Music from 1932 to 1941 where, in 1940, her original work—unfortunately, now lost—based on African folk songs was performed to acclaim. She continued her academic studies by entering Columbia University where she was earned both a bachelor’s and a master’s degree.
Despite a demanding schedule, Carrie never forgot her Laramie roots. She returned in 1921 and again in 1960 for that year’s homecoming festivities. In 1972, she assisted in fundraising efforts to turn the Ivinson Mansion into a Laramie museum by writing an account of her association with the Ivinsons. Her story, published in the Laramie Boomerang, fondly referred to Jane Ivinson as the “Lady in the Mansion” and recalled her employment as a stenographer and musician. An effort by UW Professor Robert Burns to secure an honorary degree for Carrie, although met with polite answers from the UW President and Board of Trustees, was never acted upon.
Carrie Burton Overton died in New York City in December 1975 after a long illness. She persevered in the face of early poverty and discrimination. She tied her accomplishments to her upbringing in Laramie. In a 1942 letter to the Laramie paper, she put it this way, “In all these things I have tried to repay the good people of Laramie for the faith they had in me.”
A personal thanks to Kim for allowing me to post from his article, and for all the well-researched and informative historical information he has provided to us through the years.
Post contributed by the AHC’s Simpson Archivist Leslie Waggener.