Wyoming settler women who earned the right to vote in 1869 are depicted in the Wild West Social Justice mural in Laramie, flanked by protesting black UW football players on one side and on the other by “Action Angels” who used their broad wings to block out the signs of anti-gay protesters at the trial of Matthew Shepard’s killers 20 years ago. (Andrew Graham/WyoFile)

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.

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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.

Andrew Graham

Andrew Graham is reporting for WyoFile from Laramie. He covers state government, energy and the economy. Reach him at 443-848-8756 or at andrew@wyofile.com, follow him @AndrewGraham88

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  1. Great Article. The mural is a fantastic collection of art and a sad reminder of our past. I remember Oct 1998 well. I was a freshman in collage out of state. I remember coming back from class to my dorm and stopping in the commons area to watch CNN’s coverage of the funeral. I still remember my emotions. I was extremely sad that a young man not much older than died in such a horrible way in my home state. I remember being disgusted and angry at the actions of the Westboro churches members and leader. The biggest emotion I remember is immense pride. Pride in the students and friends and other angles to stand with there wings together while people across from them said horrible things. Pride in the fact that they stood there stoically and did not lob any remarks back. I will be honest the 30 second or so clip shown on the news brought me to tears.