Down a Laramie alleyway lurk ghosts of Wyoming’s past.
Between Second and Third streets downtown a wide alleyway runs behind a Thai restaurant, gourmet cheese shop, tobacco shop, and a bar and nightclub popular with college students. Community artists with the Laramie Mural Project have dotted the walls of the alley with both historical and contemporary western figures — from cowboys and cowgirls to Native Americans to a rock climber scaling a building.
Extending from beneath metal ductwork along a brick wall is the Wild West Social Justice mural — a tribute to both victors and victims of Wyoming’s struggles with prejudice by artist Adrienne Vetter. The mural spans centuries, placing victorious women suffragettes from 1869 — who earned the state its nickname the Equality State — next to 14 black football players kicked off a UW team for protesting 100 years later. The students, known now as The Black 14, were summarily dismissed from the team when they showed up at coach Lloyd Eaton’s office wearing black armbands. They intended to protest the Mormon church’s ban on black priests at an upcoming game with Brigham Young University.
Flanking the suffragettes on the other side are three “Action Angels,” protesters who stood guard at the trial of gay UW student Matthew Shepard’s killers. He died 20 years ago this week. The angels used their broad white wings to create a visual barrier between Shepard-family supporters and members of the Westboro Baptist Church who tried to use the high-profile memorial to promote their anti-gay message.
The Shepard funeral and subsequent trial of his killers helped make the Westboro Baptist Church’s now infamous reputation. Its followers have gone on to further notoriety protesting at the funerals of soldiers killed in America’s wars abroad. But during the October, 1999 trial, the angels’ wings kept Shepard’s friends and family and the many strangers moved by his death from the sight of the church’s hateful signs.
Next week will mark the 20th anniversary of the funeral at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Casper. On Oct. 26 this year, Shepard’s ashes will be interred in the Washington National Cathedral in Washington, D.C.
CORRECTION: This story has been corrected to note that the “Action Angels” used their wings to block the signs of anti-gay protesters at the trial of Matthew Shepard’s killers, not at Shepard’s funeral as was originally reported. WyoFile has also updated the story to include the name of the mural painter, Adrienne Vetter. -Ed.