FEATURE: Melting Pot of the West

By on January 3, 2017

Wyoming’s hushed history of diversity reveals much about attitudes today on race and discrimination.


JACKSON HOLE, WY – When Tawsha Mitchell was 6 years old, she remembers waiting in line for the water fountain at Torrington Elementary School while a classmate demanded she give up her spot in line.

“N*gger girls go to the back of the line,” he told her. The year was 1999.

Shocked and confused, she walked to the back of the line. Mitchell never actually got a drink, and she says the boy didn’t face any consequences besides being forced to apologize after she started crying.

In the 2014 documentary Blacks in the West, Mitchell says she was just mad because she lost her spot. Now, however, she thinks about the fact that families in her small town were using the racial slur enough that the little boy felt empowered to use it, to tell her where to go.

Mitchell is biracial—her mom is white, her dad is black—and she was the only black student in school for most of her life. She told PJH about walking a fine line between belonging and not belonging in Wyoming. Her mom’s family has been in Torrington for five generations, so she’s “just Tawsha” there. But in other parts of the state, her experience is much different. “People always turn to look when I walk in a room, there’s a chatter, an assumption I don’t belong,” she said.

Mitchell sometimes feels as if she’s on display. She receives questions like, “What do you mean you don’t play basketball?” and “Where are you really from?” She’s meant to perceive the following remarks she hears as compliments: “You don’t dress or speak like a black person,” and “You’re not really black.”

Still, she says she finds herself convincing white Wyomingites, including her relatives, that racism exists. For Mitchell, this can feel like fighting “for my basic humanity, even to family.” In these moments, Mitchell faces erasure in the face of a dominant culture that leaves little room for her experiences.

Tawsha Mitchell

Tawsha Mitchell

In the space between hyper-visibility and invisibility, people of color in the Cowboy State find solidarity. Mitchell is studying History and African American Diaspora at the University of Wyoming, where she’s gravitated toward those “who don’t feel like they belong in Wyoming, but don’t feel like they belong anywhere else,” like Latino and LGBTQ Wyomingites. Members of these groups report they have received the message that they don’t quite belong in Wyoming, that tolerance is not a guarantee. Perhaps this is partially due to the fact that people of color and their contributions throughout the state’s history seem invisible, despite rich and complicated stories of race and racism in the state.

Exploring some of this history reveals the ways people of color here have resisted and assimilated, found success and faced discrimination, since the founding of one of the whitest states in the Union. They are people in the shadow of Wyoming’s history, constructing the state without being welcome in it.

‘They looked like me’

Growing up, Mitchell said she was “socialized as an average white kid in Wyoming.” She did not discover the state’s history of diversity until college. She says uncovering this history helped her realize “that I matter, that many of the people responsible for creating such a beautiful state looked different, looked like me.”

She did not know, for example, that just 10 miles north of her hometown, about 50 African American settlers formed a community called Empire in the 1900s—the same time her mother’s family was settling in Goshen County.

Charles Speese and his wife Rosetta founded Empire. Speese, along with his three brothers, bought 100 acres of land near Torrington. Their farm became one of the 65 farms, out of 10,915, owned by people of color in Wyoming in 1911, according to historian Robert Galbreath in an article for Wyohistory.org.

The families built their own school, post office and church. However, unrelenting racial animosity wore on them. They were frequently denied services in Torrington, and five African American men were lynched by white mobs in Wyoming between 1904 and 1920.

Crimes committed by African Americans at the time often resulted in death. In 1913, a resident of Empire, Baseman Taylor, was killed after vandalizing a door in Torrington. Todd Guenther, a history professor at Central Wyoming College, called his lynching an act of police brutality, though at the time it was not perceived as extrajudicial. By 1930, in the face of violence and prejudice, all the residents of Empire had abandoned the town and state. According to the Nebraska Historical Society, Empire is now nothing more than an “archeological site.”


About five hours from Empire, in Green River, the lynching of black janitor Joel Woodson by a mob of more than 500 white people in 1918 sent a message to people of color there. In the book Rough Justice: Lynching and American Society, author Michael James Pfeifer explained that Woodson had called a white waitress a liar when she told him the restaurant was out of food. A white railroad worker threw Woodson out of the restaurant. Later Woodson returned and shot the white man. An officer who saw the crime took him to jail. Hours later, a mob broke Woodson from his cell, dragged him to the railroad depot, “knocked him unconscious … and hanged him, publicly displaying his corpse for four hours,” Pfeifer wrote. After the lynching, all of the African American people in Green River were forced to leave.

The notion of the “protection” of white women was often used to justify violence against African Americans, especially men. Woodson had “violated white Wyomingites’ notion of the deference required from African American men in their encounters with white women,” Pfeifer explained. Some Wyoming women took this a step further. In 1924, a group called “Women of the KKK” formed in Cheyenne. Language from the original charter via the American Heritage Center reads: Members would have “ritualism, fraternal and secret objects, words, grips, signs and ceremonies” that only American born “white, female persons, of sound health, good, morals, and high character” could know and use.

A tiny kingdom of diversity

Other people of color in Wyoming had similar experiences to those in Empire. Since white settlement in the mid 1800s, Wyoming has been at its most diverse when large numbers of cheap laborers were needed for the state’s railroads, mines, and farms. Many of these workers were of African, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and Mexican descent.

At one point, for example, Rock Springs’ coal boom made it the “Melting Pot of the West.” In his historiography of the state, A Little Kingdom of Mixed Nationalities, Tim Dean Draper reports that in 1890, Rock Springs’ population was half Chinese, more than 60 percent foreign born, with residents speaking more than 35 languages within its limits.

Though people of color heavily inhabited certain urban centers in the state, a stubborn narrative was entrenched in the early 1900s that excluded nonwhites from the state’s identity. This marginalization wasn’t entirely inevitable. According to Liza Nicholas in her book Becoming Western, in the parade in Cheyenne commemorating statehood, the Afro-American Club marched behind the Seventh Infantry Band and the Girls Guards. Judge M.C. Brown proclaimed that, “each citizen of the state should enjoy the same right guaranteed to every other citizen, whether high or low, black or white, male or female.” Wyoming sought to differentiate itself from the racism, “complacency and old traditions of eastern states,” Nicholas writes.

Quickly, though, Wyoming was deemed the “last bastion of Americanness,” serving as a balance against the “degenerate, emasculate, foreign influences” perceived to be controlling America’s cities.

While new white immigrants to the state faced prejudice, they were ultimately assimilated into white history, while immigrants of color were not. In 1939, The Dude Rancher magazine boasted that Wyoming had “little in it that is exotic … it is pure America … America is safe as long as the West hangs on[to] its traditions … and stands aloof from the self-beggar psychology of disinherited races.”

Ideas of racial purity had long lasting impacts. Wyoming’s Anti-Miscegenation Law banning interracial marriage wasn’t repealed until 1965.


The consequences of threatening white identity in the state were high. Little trace of Rock Springs’ diverse history remains because Chinese miners, once the town’s majority, were driven from the state by white miners who feared their jobs were being taken. In 1885, during what is known as the Rock Springs Massacre, white miners surrounded Chinatown, an enclave of 97 buildings, and burned it to the ground, massacring 28 people. Those who survived were left penniless and were blocked from entering the mines or even the grocery store. The Rock Springs Independent urged every man to “unite in the demand that the Chinese must go.” Over the next several decades, the Chinese population virtually disappeared. By 1900, Rock Springs had a 6 percent Chinese population, down 44 percent in just 10 years.

No heart in this mountain

One of the grimmest examples of discrimination in the state’s history is the incarceration of 14,000 Japanese Americans at the internment camp, Heart Mountain War Relocation Center during WWII.

Dakota Russell is the museum manager at the Heart Mountain Interpretive Center, near the site where people were imprisoned midway between Cody and Powell. Russell explained how prisoners were often banned from speaking Japanese, celebrating their holidays, or cooking traditional food. They were put in the position of proving their patriotism while attempting to preserve their culture.



Heart Mountain was remote—creating prisoners’ dependence on the government and lessening the likelihood of their escape. The camp, a series of barracks surrounded by nine guard towers, opened during one of the coldest winters in history, and prisoners did not have enough warm clothes or bedding. A city of more than 11,000 was built virtually overnight, and workers were needed for construction, agriculture, a newspaper, a hospital, and a school. Depending on their work, prisoners made $12 to $19 a month, which they could spend in catalogues or at stores in Powell. They avoided Cody, where Japanese customers were forbidden from entering stores in town.

The reception to prisoners in Wyoming was cold–the populace believed prisoners would poison the water and bomb the dams. This perception softened when the locals, who were paid well to work in the camp, developed an appreciation for detainees. “They could have gone their whole lives without seeing a Japanese person, and this was a window into a larger world,” Russell said. In addition, when white men were drafted into the war, sugar beet farmers begged for workers from the camp. Japanese American prisoners are credited for saving farms in the region.

Prisoners were also asked to join the war, which was presented as an opportunity to demonstrate their loyalty to the country. After little success recruiting volunteers, the government made Japanese Americans eligible for the draft again (they’d been deemed unsuitable after Pearl Harbor). Resistors at Heart Mountain formed The Fair Play Committee, stating they would fight when they were considered citizens, when their families were released. The government was irate. “They rounded up and removed founding members of the leadership committee and the young men who had resisted the draft and put them on trial,” Russell said. It remains the largest mass trial in Wyoming history. All 88 people who were tried were sentenced to three years in prison.

Those who didn’t resist were drafted into the 442nd, an all Japanese American unit. Russell recounted the story of one such member of the 442nd—Stanley Hayami, who moved to Heart Mountain at 16. Hayami’s parents were Japanese, though he was born in California. He kept diaries of his time in Heart Mountain and in one entry he describes speaking with his uncle, a leader in the Fair Play Committee, about whether he should resist the draft. Ultimately, he decided going to war would prove his patriotism and he was killed in battle in San Terenzo, Italy, at 19 years old.


Hayami’s family was still in Wyoming at the time of his death. Like all Japanese Americans after the war, settling in Wyoming after the camp dismantled was not an option. Japanese born residents were not allowed to buy land or seek citizenship until the 1950s, and their children could not obtain fishing or hunting licenses. “Many of these people grew up in Wyoming, will always be tied to this place,” Russell said. “It’s sacred to them.” Though they may not have been welcome in the state, a lot of people will always carry Wyoming in their hearts, he said.

Erasing the past

The same year The Dude Rancher made it clear that people of color were not welcome in Wyoming, an unknown number of Mexican migrants, likely in the thousands, labored on the state’s sugar beet farms under the Bracero Program. The program was a result of diplomatic agreements between the United States and Mexico by which the US agreed to provide shelter, food, and minimum wage to Mexican laborers who were legally brought to the country to work on large-scale farms. According to Lawrence Cardoso, a former history professor at University of Wyoming, many of the laborers were recruited from Mexico with promises of their own chunk of land and high wages. These promises, however, were almost always broken.

For 14 years, the US legally imported 200,000 workers every year. Cardoso writes that migration gave landowners a taste for cheap labor, and tens of thousands of workers illegally migrated to meet demand. Without this reserve of laborers who were underpaid, politically disenfranchised, and barred from unionizing, Cardoso argues it is unlikely that corporate scale farming would have been viable in the United States or Wyoming.

Some of these laborers formed a settlement in Lovell, WY, known only as the Lovell Mexican Colony. The colony was home to dozens of families for more than 30 years, until the mid 1950s. In a 1979 thesis for a master’s of education degree at University of Wyoming, Augustin Redwine wrote what appears to be the only thorough examination of the colony. He described residents living in one-or two-room adobe homes with dirt floors and no running water. The work was hard, and they were treated as outsiders who had little recourse but to endure.

In 1954, the colony was demolished. Like Rock Springs’ Chinatown and Torrington’s Empire, Redwine writes that “nothing remains that would indicate that a unique people came to Wyoming” but “a mound of adobe, grass, and straw.”

The disappearance of the workers can likely be attributed to Operation Wetback, an immigration enforcement law implemented in 1954 in response to fears that Mexican workers were taking American jobs. In the New Republic, Jeet Heer writes that the program was a “humanitarian crisis” and had all the earmarks of a “military offensive.”

INS Border Control repeatedly swept the country from California to Texas with the goal of making 1,000 arrests per day. Under the act, 100,000 people were repatriated, many of them taken in cargo ships and dumped in Veracruz, Mexico. A congressional investigation would later compare the vessels to 18th century slave ships. Nearly 100 workers died in the process of exportation, and an unknown number of American citizens were swept up in the raid.

To the horror of those familiar with Operation Wetback, in the November 2015 Republican primary debate, President-elect Donald Trump praised Operation Wetback, and suggested it could be a model for his immigration plan.

‘You have to be quieter’

In 1997, an immigration enforcement raid in Jackson rang with the memory of Operation Wetback. As reported by Lisa Jones in High Country News, police officers and federal agents swept the town, gathering about 150 documented and undocumented Latino workers, inking numbers on their arms and transporting them to jail via patrol cars and horse trailers. The memory of this event weighs on the minds of many Latino residents, such as Ana Ramos.* She immigrated to Jackson from the state of Tlaxcala, Mexico, more than 20 years ago. Ramos, who remembers police coming into her home without permission during the raid, and hearing yells for help coming from the horse trailer, has learned that silence can be a survival skill in a place not entirely hospitable to difference.

Though Latinos constitute about 33 percent of Jackson’s population, the highest concentration in the state, Ramos says she doesn’t ever feel entirely comfortable in Jackson. For her and many other immigrants, life can be difficult–immigrants’ average income is $26,000 in a town where other people here make an average of $72,000. She has struggled to make ends meet, and has lived in more places than she can count, one of which was a tent she stayed in for several winter months with two children. Currently, Ramos is selling her house and she recently lost her job as a house cleaner because her boss wanted to hire someone she could pay less.

Ramos has often been made to feel inferior in Jackson Hole. She remembers a time once, in her early years in the valley, when she was speaking Spanish with her sons in the grocery store. A man overheard them and started screaming, “What the fuck, why are you speaking Spanish? Shut up. You live in the US now.” At the time she says she “had nothing, less than nothing.” In the years before Latino Resource Center, now One22, “there was no one to help.” So she relied on neighbors and friends to help fill out her kids’ papers for schools, to learn how to be in Jackson.

Ramos has passed these lessons on to new arrivals to Jackson. And there are many—from the years 2000 to 2010, Latinos accounted for two thirds of population growth. “When people come here for the first time, I say, ‘you have to watch your life.’ It’s different here—you have to respect everybody; you have to be quieter.” Ramos describes Latinos as needing to be aware at all times of how others might perceive them.

In the book Losing Matthew Shepard, Val Pexton, who grew up near Douglas, agrees that people who are different have to be careful: Wyomingites “say we don’t get into anybody’s else’s business” but “we are really on the lookout for anybody who is different. If that person keeps it real low key, then they’re ok … But the minute they move out of that safe zone, that tolerance is gone.”

Ramos has experienced the consequences of being too visible. Her first home here was a small apartment in downtown. The landlord didn’t know she had kids, so every day she’d leave the house at 7 a.m., and not return until late at night. Still, someone complained to the landlord that her kids were too loud and she was kicked out. Ramos maintains, “they never heard my kids running around, we were never there.”

Now, Ramos says she feels strong. She says her experiences here have helped her understand a lot about life, “how hard it can be, how beautiful.” For her, success means her children having the opportunities she never had. As a child in Mexico, without shoes, or much clothing, she started working when she was nine years old. “I know how it is to come here and not have a place to sleep, a place to eat, a place to shower,” Ramos said. She remembers the loneliness of not speaking the language, of not knowing where to go for help. Now, she gives all she can. “People can stay with me for days, for months. At one time I needed help, and now I give it.”

Failing to teach history

Like Ramos, many people of color in Wyoming face interpersonal discrimination as they struggle to belong. These injustices also exist on a systemic level, and are visible in the education and criminal justice systems.

Along with four other states, Wyoming received an “F” grade in 2014 from the Southern Poverty Law Center’s (SPLC) Teaching Tolerance Project for its Social Science Standards. Wyoming school received this grade because they do not require schools to teach specific civil rights history. The SPLC found that most students surveyed could only remember two names from civil rights history: Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks. The SPLC argues that many students learn a sanitized history in which there is slavery without enslavers. This version of the past causes students to leave school either feeling excluded by curriculum that ignore their lived experiences of race and racism, or having “no framework for understanding racism and other forms of inequality today.”

The Wyoming Department of Education includes five sections in its social studies guidelines, one of which, Standard 2, outlines the “Culture and Cultural Diversity” knowledge students should have at every grade level. It includes vague knowledge students should have about diversity and discrimination. Twelfth graders, for example, should be able to “analyze human experiences that integrates views of cultural expression.” Civil rights leaders are mentioned once: by 5th grade, students are asked to “identify and describe tensions between cultural groups, social classes and/or individuals in Wyoming and the United States (e.g. Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, Helen Keller, Sacagawea, Chief Washakie).”

In contrast, South Carolina, one of three states to receive an “A,” has more specific, historicized standards. Third graders, for example, are expected to know about “the role of Africans in developing the culture and economy of South Carolina, including the growth of the slave trade; slave contributions to the plantation economy; the daily lives of enslaved people; the development of the Gullah culture; and their resistance to slavery.”

Laurie Hernandez, the standard supervisor at the Wyoming Department of Education, told PJH she was unaware of the SLPC’s assessment. “Wyoming is a local control state,” she explained. “Standards won’t come right out and tell schools what to teach.” But that doesn’t mean civil rights history is not being taught: “The districts have control of how they decide they want to teach about diversity and culture.” A committee of parents, educators, and business people sets the standards.

Wyoming teachers and administrators—96.3 percent of whom are white, according to the National Center for Education Statistics—have the great responsibility of creating curriculum that is representative of the state’s civil rights history. Mitchell says the school she attended deviated little from the standards. Her civil rights education began and ended with Martin Luther King and Malcolm X.

One graduate of Jackson Hole Middle School reported a similar experience. He says his civil rights education “made it seem like racism was something that was in the past that ended in 1960.”

Indeed, the standards do not elucidate Wyoming’s long, complicated history of race and racism, that it has been home to many different ethnic groups, that struggles for liberation are historically and currently pertinent.

One of the areas in which the struggle for justice is highly relevant is within the criminal justice system. According to the Prison Policy Initiative, African Americans in Wyoming are 3.5 times more likely to be imprisoned than white citizens, and are punished for crimes at vastly disproportionate rates. Though African Americans make up 1.6 percent of the state’s population, they comprise 5 percent of prisoners.

Native Americans and Latinos are also incarcerated at rates much higher than whites in Wyoming. Indigenous people are about 2.5 times as likely to be imprisoned as whites, and Hispanic people are about twice as likely.

A study conducted by The Sentencing Project examining which states had the highest proportion of Latinos prisoners by population found that Wyoming ranked 18th in the country, despite its low population and diversity. Though Hispanics make up 9.7 percent of the state’s population, they are 11.7 percent of its prisoners. This is not necessarily a countrywide trend. In at least 23 states, Latinos are represented less in prison by percentage than they are in the state’s population as a whole.

Despite the long history of racism and current examples of injustices, some Wyomingites do not see racism as modern problem here.

Former Wyoming Sen. Alan Simpson worked with an all black cement crew in Cheyenne, Lander, and Cody about 60 years ago. He remembers that his co-workers weren’t allowed to live within the town limits. “No hotel or motel would allow them to stay,” he said. Once, when Simpson went to a bar to get beers for the crew, he remembers the server replying, “We don’t serve n*iggers here.”

Now though, he doesn’t see racism as an issue. “Show me where all these racist people are,” he said during a phone interview. “I don’t see them.”

In contrast, James Hayes Jr., 61, of Cheyenne, is an African American who believes that if anything, racism is getting worse. Hayes was born and raised in Cheyenne, and grew up in the years where people of color were not allowed to live north of Pershing Boulevard, and it was common to see “No Dogs or Coloreds” signs in restaurants. Hayes was baptized at the Allen Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME), one of two historically black churches in the state founded by Lucy Phillips in 1878.

Just three months ago, the church received a letter saying that they were devil worshipers. Hayes believes that the presidential election has “given racism the greenlight.” He pointed to a few recent incidents. While he was walking downtown, a group of white men began shouting, “Look at that, there’s a n*gger looking at me!” Then a woman cut in front of him in a store line as if he wasn’t even there, as if he were “a ghost.”

Growing up, Hayes says the racism he experienced was more hush-hush. Now, however, it appears in plain view.

Hayes calls it “open season” on people like him. He has seen white men walking through downtown Cheyenne with pistols strapped to their backs, “like they’re ready for battle.” For Hayes and other African Americans, this scene contributes to an overall sense of unease in a time where black men are disproportionately victims of extrajudicial killing. The 2015 shooting of nine African American churchgoers in Charleston, South Carolina, occurred at an AME church. “When you can’t even go to church, can’t even go to your place of worship and feel safe, we’re in big trouble,” he said.

Benjamin Watson has been the pastor at Allen Chapel AME for more than seven years. He noted that the state’s history is just as much one of color as it is white, but he says this history has been covered up or mis-told. “For too long, others have been telling our history for us—what should be said and how it is to be said. Truth is, they can’t tell our history like we can tell our history.”

Pastor Benjamin Watson

Pastor Benjamin Watson

Watson believes that after so many years of being “mistreated, misjudged, and misunderstood,” African Americans are “afraid to speak truth concerning community issues so not to offend or hurt someone else’s feelings.” People in Wyoming, he says, particularly those in power, walk a fine line, taking great care to not be seen as unjust without actually standing up for justice.

In this context, Watson challenges the idea of Wyoming as the Equality State.

Mitchell would agree with this challenge. “People in Wyoming don’t want to be racist,” she said. But they’re unwilling to broach topics of race or to confront current and historical discrimination. “There’s an avoidance because it’s scary—we live in a beautiful state, but underneath that, this land doesn’t belong to us. To address racism, we need to get real about settler colonialism, to give up some ownership of this state we all love so much,” to recognize how much of the state’s history has relied on the subjugation of people of color.

The ongoing battle to belong

The founding of Wyoming, as it is now known, depended on the marginalizing of people of color here in Jackson Hole too. According to That’s the Way it Was in Jackson Hole, a historical account of the town, in Jackson alone, five Native tribes were splintered and forced into reservations in Idaho, Wyoming, and Montana during the colonization. The 1868 Fort Bridger Treaty moved the Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho to the Wind River Reservation, and Yellowstone National Park officials forced all indigenous people from the park. Legislation was passed to ban them from hunting or camping in Teton Valley, as their ancestors had done for millennia.

While Native Americans were made aliens in their own land, newer residents of color were excluded from claiming a sense of belonging.

The feeling of not belonging remains for many minority residents who have been made marginal in Wyoming’s history.

Though Cheyenne is his home, Hayes says he often doesn’t feel welcome. However, after a lifetime of discrimination, it impacts him less now.

“You know, when it first happens your first thought is retaliation, but then I think of a lesson my 92-year- old mother gave me. She said, ‘You just overlook those white people, you just overstep any pain they cause. You just keep your head to the sky and keep walking no matter what.’ That’s been a handy lesson.” PJH

*This person’s name has been changed.

The Laramie’s Ivinson Mansion was not paid for by sugarcane wealth as stated in an earlier version of this story. It was paid for by proceeds of Edward Ivinson’s five-decade long banking career. 


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