A few days after we moved to Casper from Cheyenne in 1999, my 12-year-old son asked me something I’d been wondering myself: “Dad, where are all the black people?”

Wyoming’s capital city can’t be described as even remotely diverse, with an African-American population of about 3.6 percent. But it still tops Casper, which can only claim a 1.9 percent black citizenry, according to U.S. Census Bureau estimates. African Americans make up less than 1 percent of the entire state’s population, helping make Wyoming the ninth whitest state in the nation.

Wyoming’s small population has given us the opportunity to know our neighbors as individuals, not just as members of a category. That saturation of real, human relationships — still a life-and-death necessity in some of the more remote areas — is one of several reasons people here have a particularly hard time understanding the kind of hatred on display in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Like the rest of the nation, Wyomingites were shocked by the violence perpetrated by the white supremacists, and by President Donald Trump’s abhorrent suggestion that the murderous mob included some “very fine people.” Even though the hate-filled alt-right groups invaded the city brandishing weapons and torches and chanting epithets against minorities, Trump disgracefully inferred that both sides were responsible for the violence.

Seventy percent of Wyoming’s 2016 presidential election ballots may have been cast for Trump, but that doesn’t mean we’ll abide Nazis marching in our streets or an ambiguous response to evil.

Wyoming has shown that white power groups are not welcome. The Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks the activities of hate groups, has listed very few in Wyoming over the years and none that has ever had a large membership. There are reportedly pockets of Ku Klux Klan members scattered throughout the state, particularly in Campbell County, but no organized group.

When radical domestic terrorists like the KKK have tried to make inroads in Wyoming, their attempts have, thus far, been loudly rejected.

On Jan. 15, 1996, I covered a protest on the steps of the Capitol in Cheyenne that included a dozen Klansmen and more than 200 counter-protesters.

I remember it as an ugly, surreal day. KKK National Director Thomas Robb, flanked by members holding flags, appeared at a podium after bagpipe music was blasted over the loudspeakers. His hateful rant focused on blacks, illegal aliens and gays. He reserved special venom for the late Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., whom he claimed did not deserve his own holiday.

Many of the counter-protesters  — separated from the Klan by an orange police blockade — greeted the Klan with middle-finger salutes and chants like “We don’t need no hate today! We don’t need no KKK!”

Prior to the state granting the KKK a permit for the protest, Gov. Jim Geringer said that while the Klan isn’t welcome in Wyoming, officials can’t prevent them from exercising their rights to free speech. I agree, and wish I could have felt that allowing the protest was some kind of testament to the First Amendment. But when I headed home that night, I was still upset that such a symbol of hate had desecrated the place where I went to work everyday.

The only good news was that largely because of a significant police presence, no one was injured at the protest.

While I’m confident that what happened in Charlottesville will never happen in Wyoming, I realize there are some residents of the state — I hope not many — who do agree with the outrageous statements made by the president and actually sympathize with the promoters of racism.

And make no mistake — Wyoming has its own history of shameful racist incidents.

During the Rock Springs Massacre of September 1885, 28 Chinese miners were killed and 15 injured in a labor dispute. It was five years before Wyoming’s statehood when white miners, angered their Chinese counterparts were being hired by Union Pacific’s Coal Department for lower wages, burned 78 Chinese homes.

No one was held accountable for the deaths. A Sweetwater grand jury refused to indict any of the 16 men arrested, declaring that “no one has been able to testify to a single criminal act committed by any known white person that day.”

The Wind River Indian Reservation has seen all too many hate crimes. One of the most highly publicized happened just recently. On July 18, 2015, a white man shot two members of the Northern Arapaho tribe in their beds at an addiction recovery center. One died and the other was critically injured. The shooter, a Riverton city parks employee, reportedly said he was hunting for “park rangers” — a slur used mostly in reference to Native Americans who drink alcohol in city parks.

And who can forget the “Black 14?” In 1969 the University of Wyoming dismissed 14 black football players for their protest of anti-black Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints policies before the UW-Brigham Young University game. Support for the 14 black athletes was strong at UW, but much of the state was divided about what became a national controversy.

The horror in Virginia caused me to recall what happened a few years ago when I was at a poker table in Casper with some acquaintances. One was a burly oil worker I knew little about — beyond his gruff appearance and exceptional talent as a poker player.

He launched into a story that featured a co-worker he described as “a colored boy.” The rest of us white players sat uncomfortably silent. We were waiting to see what the black woman at our table would do.

She was obviously upset, but in a calm voice she explained that she found the term “colored boy” very offensive. It was just as bad as the “N-word,” she said, adding that she knew he wouldn’t use that word.

This gentle giant melted before our eyes. “I never knew that,” he said, apologetically. “No one ever told me that before.” There was shame in his eyes. He promised he’d never use the term again, and though I only saw him a few times after that, I believe he kept his word.

There are signs that Wyoming is becoming more diverse, which is good for the state. According to the U.S. Census Bureau the state’s minority population increased by more than 18 percent between 2010 and 2015. If any of these new residents of color bring half the character and integrity of the late Harriett Elizabeth “Liz” Byrd, we’re sure to benefit.

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Ms. Byrd of Cheyenne was the first black member to serve in both the Wyoming House and Senate. Byrd was an optimist who persevered through the defeat of nine bills she sponsored to make Martin Luther King Jr. Day a Wyoming holiday. In the end, she saw Dr. King finally honored — albeit with an amendment brought by her white colleagues for “Wyoming Equality Day” added to the bill.

But as you might expect, she experienced and fought discrimination throughout her life. Her race kept her from being hired as a teacher in Wyoming. She ultimately became an award-winning educator beloved by generations of students. As a teenager she was once refused service at a drugstore. White students threw the ice from their drinks over the counter in protest and walked out with her.

I like to think that such solidarity in the face of hatred still carries the day in the Equality State, and that it always will — no matter who seeks to divide us.

Kerry Drake

Veteran Wyoming journalist Kerry Drake has covered Wyoming for more than four decades, previously as a reporter and editor for the Wyoming Tribune-Eagle and Casper Star-Tribune. He lives in Cheyenne and...

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  1. Kerry,
    This is a thoughtful article reflecting your experiences. But, you need to follow it up after you interview people who are black, hispanic, women, gay or other minorities.
    Yes, I think there are good caring people in our state, but I have seen way more incidents of hate and bigotry than you have, apparently.
    I have a gentle, black nephew that was born in this state. He has lived here off and on and regularly is stopped by police in Laramie. They apparently think his skin color makes him suspicious. He has never committed any kind of crime.
    A friend served as the first Mexican U.S. Marshall in Wyoming. He was first a police chief in Rawlins. Some people here called him boy and other racist remarks as they actively opposed his selection. To our credit and the credit of our elected officials he was appointed and served. But, the hatred and condescending remarks I heard were horrific.
    As a woman, I have been told I am less than because of my sex in various ways all my life. Certainly it is getting better than it was when I was a youngster. But, it still happens.
    One of the biggest offenders are certain denominations of churches that preach inferiority of women.

  2. The largest anti-LGBT hate group in the country is based in Johnson County, Wyoming and has been for the past 20+ years. Tucker Ruby, the Johnson County District Attorny doesn’t deny that he is involved in the hate group.

    While the FBI is the only law enforcement agency tracking hate crime statistics in Wyoming, you can do your own research by calling your local district attorney and asking how many bias motivated crimes they have prosecuted in the past year. Sadly, the answer is zero in almost every county in Wyoming.

    The claim that “Wyoming doesn’t tolerate hate groups” is bogus. There is no civil rights division in the Wyoming Attorney General’s office and they seem to do more to cover up hate crime when it happens.

  3. Studies have shown that blacks must reach a certain percentage of the population–I think about 10%–before racism kicks in. (That could be good, or bad news, for the African American couple above who want to move to Casper.) When I first moved to Wyo in 1988 my then boyfriend and I went dancing at the Latin American Club on the southern edge of Laramie. We were told that white guys came down there just to beat up the Mexicans. While I lived there a cross was burned in front of the synagogue in Cheyenne. And of course, as someone else mentioned, there was the horrific murder of Matthew Shepherd–the only real fact most people know about the state apart from that it has cowboys and Yellowstone. Any doubts I might have had that this was some kind of “hate crime” if not perpetrated by a “hate group” was dispelled when I learned that McKinney and Henderson went on to beat up two Latino guys in the park. Kerry, to really write about this, I think you needed to interview a good sample of the groups you mention and include gay people who have told me about some awful experiencess.. White people, not only in Wyoming but everywhere, find countless ways to express prejudices without marching and brandishing weapons in groups.

  4. Wonderful piece, thank you.

    My wife and I {African American} are seriously considering Casper as a place we’d like to retire to. Thank you.

  5. The actual HISTORY along with the insight Mr. Drake provides here is crucial to our work of civilization here in Wyoming and everywhere else. Civilization takes hard work, including the work of resisting hate and violence.
    Thank you for a great piece!

  6. Another fine column. To add a bit, the same territorial legislature that passed the nation’s first woman suffrage bill also prohibited interracial marriages. That 1869 law was still on the books when the US Supreme Court declared such laws unconstitutional nearly a century later (it was removed for four years by the first African-American legislator who served in Wyoming, but reinstated when he departed office in the last 1880s). Kerry accurately describes the social benefits derived from Wyoming’s low population, but that same environment can let hate spread quickly as well. I believe that the state’s primary political party continues to endorse polices that would roll back civil right gains by those who are gay, lesbian and bisexual, even though many of its members disagree with that party plank. We can make still make a difference as individuals in the Equality State, if we remain vigilant.

    1. If Wyoming didn’t tolerate hate groups, there would be a civil rights division at the attorney general’s office. This article is just editorial content with little to no facts to support the headline.

  7. Mr. Drake, it seems that your definition of “perpetuated” means disagreeing with everything not “liberal”.

    1. If you condone this type of behavior by white supremacists please have the courage to say so…

  8. Thank you for this thoughtful piece Kerry. In your description of the poker game interaction, I was struck by the silence of the white folk, waiting for the black person to respond to a racial comment. I have been that white person too many times. It is time we all step forward and correct each other, rather than waiting for the least powerful to be the most brave. Your telling of that interaction also gives me hope that we can say the truth without hostile confrontation, and respond to criticism with humility.

  9. The death of Matthew Shepard in 1998 was not a hate “group” crime, but I believe it opened the eyes of Wyoming residents to the fact that prejudice and hate should not and cannot be tolerated.

    Let’s hope it doesn’t take another tragedy in Wyoming to remind us of that.

  10. I demonstrated in support of the Black 14 in 1969 and experienced some animosity when I returned to my home town later on. But now I’m a racist because I know that there was violence on both sides of the equation at Charlottesville? Knowing and stating a fact should still be regarded as straight talk, something that Wyoming people are supposed to value. If someone senses an intimation, the fact remains.

    1. Hello Douglas,

      Yes, there was violence from both sides in Charlottesville, but why was it caused? Primarily, because the city official permitted a rouge group of domestic terrorists to parade and violate public space.

      Do you remember in the 70’s, when a group was formed in Oakland, California, who called themselves the Black Panthers, a group organized to stop the Oakland city police from raiding the black community and molesting and killing American citizens? They were not allowed to assemble, each time they did there were arrested. Some are still in incarcerated as political prisoners. They were shot down in their offices by orders of the wannabe head Gestapo, J. Edgar Hoover.

      Yes, people are going to defend themselves. Why should we fight Isis if we’re going to allow these rouge organizations to molest citizens? They should be termed “domestic terrorist”. Do You know the history of the KKK!!! or the White Citizen Council?

      Evidently, you do not!