The Inspiring Story of Wyoming’s First Black Female Legislator
William Jefferson Hardin became the first African-American to serve as a senator in the Wyoming Territorial Legislature in 1879, but nearly 100 years later, the first female black legislator would be elected to the Wyoming Government. Harriet Elizabeth "Liz" Byrd was elected to the Wyoming House, and later the Senate.
Liz was born in Cheyenne in 1926. Her father was a mechanic for the Union Pacific Railroad and her grandfather had traversed the trip to the Wyoming Territory shortly before Hardin would be elected in 1876. He became a well-known cowboy and worked for the railroad. Liz graduated from Cheyenne High School and attempted to go to the University of Wyoming in 1944, but her application was rejected. Her son told a newspaper at the time of her death that "segregation was in full swing," as an explanation for why her college application was rejected from UW.
After graduation from West Virginia State College with an Elementary Education Degree, Liz attempted to get a job with the Laramie County School District in 1949 and was again rejected, likely for the same reasons that UW had turned her down five years earlier. She would eventually be hired by the school district in 1959, becoming the first fully-certified black teacher in Wyoming.
While Liz climbed the ladder as a teacher, her husband James would become the first black chief of police in Cheyenne and Wyoming. In 1981, Liz Byrd was elected to the Wyoming House of Representatives, hoping to affect change for teachers and solve the inadequacy of equipment they faced. “She went to every event that she could regardless of size. She also went door-to-door at least two to three times, and this was when we had an at-large delegation and you ran countywide," Her son, James, said of her first campaign. "That is probably why she finished first or in the top three most of the time.”
In 1989, Liz campaigned again, but this time for an election to the Wyoming State Senate, where she became the first African-American, regardless of gender, to serve in the institution. One of the most well-known of her achievements was being the primary sponsor for the Martin Luther King Jr. Holiday bill. She brought it before the legislature nine times. Eventually, there was a compromise and her bill was approved with the nomenclature change to "Equality Day," something Byrd didn't particularly like, but as it was the closest the bill had ever gotten to being law, she let it slide.
Byrd also worked for laws for adequate handicapped parking and the creation of social services for adults. Her son, James, would eventually follow in her footsteps and run for Wyoming State Legislature as well, being elected in 2008. Liz Byrd passed away in 2015 at the age of 88. Governor Matt Mead ordered the flag to be flown at half-mast throughout Laramie county in her honor.