"Liz" Byrd, first black woman in Wyoming House, dies at 88

Former educator and politician Harriet Elizabeth "Liz" Byrd poses for a portrait at her home in 2010. Byrd graduated from Cheyenne High School in 1944 and became the first black teacher in the state of Wyoming during the 1950s. Byrd also served eight years in the Wyoming House of Representatives and four years in the Senate, becoming the first black person to serve in both houses. During her political career, she sponsored legislation establishing a state holiday in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1991. Michael Smith/staff

CHEYENNE - A Cheyenne native whose jobs as teacher and state legislator contributed to the lives of thousands of Wyoming residents has died.

Harriett Elizabeth "Liz" Byrd, 88, died Tuesday at her home in Cheyenne.

She was the first African-American woman to serve in the Legislature. William Jefferson Hardin was the first African-American elected to the territorial legislature in 1879.

Mrs. Byrd was a trailblazer and one of the most influential people in state history, according to a profile about her written by the University of Wyoming. UW honored her in 2012 as a distinguished alumna.

UW President Dick McGinity said in an email: "Liz Byrd was a true pioneer in Wyoming's educational and political history. As an educator, she displayed tremendous fortitude in overcoming racial discrimination to forge an exemplary teaching career that included a master's degree from UW in 1976.

"As the first African-American woman in the state Legislature, and the first African-American in the state Senate, she left a wonderful legacy that includes the creation of a state holiday on the birthday of Martin Luther King Jr.," he said.

Friend Rita Watson added, "She was an amazing woman."

Byrd is the reason why Wyoming observes Martin Luther King Day as a state holiday. She worked for years to encourage fellow legislators to create a Martin Luther King Jr. holiday like other states had done, Watson said.

Legislators approved it in 1990 with the condition that Wyoming also called the holiday "Equality Day."

Watson said she walked with Byrd and others on the first Martin Luther King Jr. birthday observance march in Cheyenne, which happened at least 33 years ago.

Byrd was serious when she needed to be and got the job done, Watson said. But she also had fun.

"I remember she and her husband used to love to dance," Watson said. "She was very intelligent, strong, a hard worker, a wonderful, wonderful person. She had a heart of gold."

Born in Cheyenne on April 20, 1926, to Robert C. "Buck" and Sudie Rhone, Byrd earned her diploma from Cheyenne High in 1944. A pocket park on Central Avenue across the street from Pando Park is named in her father's honor.

Byrd was a fourth-generation Wyoming resident. Her grandfather Charles Rhone was a legendary cowboy and railroad man who came to Wyoming in 1876.

She married James Byrd in 1947 and they raised two sons and a daughter. James Byrd was the first African-American police chief in Cheyenne. He died in 2005.

The Byrds are survived by their adult children, eight grandchildren and one great-grandchild.

Mrs. Byrd earned her bachelor of science in education from West Virginia State College. She wasn't accepted at UW likely because of her color, said her son, state Rep. James Byrd, D-Cheyenne.

She later earned her master's degree in education from UW.

When she came home from the West Virginia college, Laramie County School District 1 did not hire her because of her race even though she was one of only a few who had college degrees, a UW biography says.

She taught at Fort F.E. Warren (now F.E. Warren Air Force Base).

"This was back when segregation was still in full swing. She couldn't get a job in the public schools," son James Byrd said.

LCSD1 hired her in 1959. A publication called "Black America: a State-by-State Historical Encyclopedia," said she was the first fully certified, full-time African-American teacher in Wyoming.

Her first teaching job in Cheyenne schools was at Goins Elementary, LCSD1 Superintendent John Lyttle said. She earned $4,400 a year in her first job there, an employee card indicates.

She taught at several elementary schools after that, including Corlett, Pioneer Park and Rossman, and she completed her career at Deming Elementary in 1986.

Lyttle said Byrd was "very dedicated and committed to kids and families. She was a great person; a very, very nice human being," he said.

"I had an opportunity to visit her classroom at Corlett," he said. "She had a great relationship with the kids."

She taught in Cheyenne schools for 27 years.

Voters elected Byrd to the state House in 1981 and to the state Senate in 1989.

She was remembered fondly by local legislators.

Calling her a "legend" in both the Wyoming Democratic Party and the Legislature as a whole, Rep. Mary Throne, D-Cheyenne, said Byrd was a trailblazer and an icon of politics in Cheyenne.

"She remained true to her convictions," Throne said. "She's the reason we celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day in Wyoming, I think that's fair to say.

"She was always committed to the community, committed to what she believed and just a wonderful lady."

Sen. Tony Ross, R-Cheyenne, remembered Byrd as a lovely person and an advocate for people's rights.

"She was one who championed Martin Luther King," he said. "She left a legacy, and it's too bad she has passed. But she was a person everybody loved."

Sen. Floyd Esquibel, D-Cheyenne, described Byrd as elegant, adding that elegance was matched only by her passion for the causes she supported.

"She had high principles and stood by what she believed," he said. "She was so widely respected and admired in the community, a great leader. She will be missed."

Gov. Matt Mead commended Byrd's service.

"Wyoming, the Equality State, takes special pride in those whose courage and leadership contribute to this designation," he said in an email statement.

"Liz Byrd was a teacher who shaped the lives of many children and a leader who demonstrated that each person makes a difference. She was a role model for all people, for women and for Wyoming."

Mrs. Byrd also received many awards, including being part of a book published in 1999 called "I Dream a World." She appears there with other distinguished African-American women.

- The Casper Star-Tribune contributed to this article.

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