You may have noticed that all the cowboys in the photo featured just above are black. That’s because their ancestors likely headed West right after they were freed from slavery after the end of the Civil War in 1865 and Lincoln’s Emancipation Declaration became the law of the land after slavery had been abolished by the adoption of the 13th Amendment on December 6, 1865. The photo above was likely taken somewhere around the 1890s. Black cowboys were well respected and in high demand for their rough and ready ranching skills. Also for their shooting skills to stop cattle rustlers.
Charles J. Rhone first came to the Dakota Territory as a child in 1876. He later became a legendary cowboy and railroad man in Cheyenne. I don’t know too much about his life, and I’m trying to find out more. His granddaughter, Harriet Elizabeth “Liz” Byrd (1926-2015) was a friend of my mother’s. Liz Byrd was a school teacher in Cheyenne for 37 years before becoming the first Black woman to be elected to the Wyoming legislature where she was a Democrat member the House from 1981-88 and in the State Senate from 1989-92. Her husband, James “Jim” Byrd became the first black man to be chief of the Cheyenne police in 1966. He died in 2005.
Liz Byrd attended my mother’s funeral in 2006 and wrote in the sign-in book that my mother was the best person she had ever known. She also wrote a brief description of her friend Frances Giles who was too sick to attend my mom’s funeral. When I was a child we lived across the street from the African American family of Frances Giles and her husband Jetti Giles. Their children were playmates of mine. Frances’ mother, known a “Mama Hattie,” lived with them and was an early disciplinarian of mine. My mother told her not to let me get away with anything, and she sure didn’t.
While Liz Byrd was the first black woman in the Wyoming legislature, William Jefferson Hardin was the first black person in the legislature. He served in the territorial legislature before Wyoming became a state in 1890.
The story of Liz Byrd’s grandfather represents an example of the beginning of what has been called the Great Migration of blacks out of the South after the Civil War. Sometimes the term “Great Migration” refers to black migration to the Northern industrial cities in the first half of the 20th Century, but the post Civil War migration, while not as “great” perhaps, was nonetheless very significant both for the newly freed former slaves and for the Western United States. Racial animus was much less vital in the West because the newly arriving blacks were eager to find meaningful work, and the West was eager to accept them. A good cowboy was so much appreciated and needed nobody much cared what color his skin might be. If he could ride and rope cattle he was assured of a job and some respect to go along with it.
Liz Byrd’s grandfather appears to have been too young to have ever been a slave himself, but his parents surely must have been. Therefor, he is representative of the black migration of the freedmen to the West seeking a better life for themselves and their families.
I love the photo shown here, which I found at this website. It depicts a man proud and sure of himself, a true Wyoming cowboy and a rugged individual. The life of a man like Charles J. Rhone puts into perspective an event that I remember from my childhood in Cheyenne. When I was probably about 6 or 7 years old my mother and I would walk over the viaduct from the South Side of Cheyenne to the downtown area to go to the post office and pay the light bill. Then we would walk to a popular cafe on East 16th Street called The Coffee Cup for lunch. This would have been in the first part of the 1950s decade. In case you haven’t already guessed my mother and I are white Caucasians. Apparently the Coffee Cup had just changed ownership and the new owner must have been from the South. In the window of the front door appeared a large printed sign bearing the words, “No Colored Trade.” I was old enough to read so I could read it, but I didn’t know what it meant. I knew that African Americans were called “colored” at that time, but I still didn’t make the connection. My mother did, and she was horrified. I remember her saying, “Stop, we are not going in there.” We turned around and left.
I asked why (because I didn’t know what the sign really meant) and my mother explained that it meant that our friends who lived across the street from us were not allowed to eat there. She said, “If they can’t eat there, then we won’t either.”
That must have pretty much been the sentiment in Cheyenne at the time because the Coffee Cup, once a popular eatery, soon closed it doors for lack of business.
Somebody should have told the new owner that Wyoming is the Equality State and a that lot of black cowboys and railroad workers had helped to make it what it was, and we aimed to keep it that way.
More Wyoming history: Wyoming Range War-1892