African American & Diaspora Studies created a Speaker Series; the Harriet Elizabeth Liz Byrd Speaker Series in African American Studies. Mrs. Byrd, a Wyoming native, is a former Wyoming Senator, Representative and educator.
Mrs. Byrd is entrenched in Wyoming’s history. Born April 20, 1926 into the Rhone family of Cheyenne, she is a fourth generation native of Wyoming, Byrd arrived to a family that played a large part in establishing Wyoming. Byrd’s grandfather, Charles J. Rhone was a renowned cowboy and railroader. He played an important role in Byrd’s life, telling her to educate herself and use it as a “means of survival.” Upon graduating from Cheyenne high school in 1944, Byrd looked towards college and her dream of becoming a elementary school teacher. She enrolled in West Virginia State College, a predominately Black college where she learned a new self respect for herself. After graduating Byrd returned home to Wyoming to head to work. Due to her minority status she was denied entry to the Laramie County School District despite being one of only a few applicants to hold a college degree. She found a job teaching at Fort F.E. Warren Air Force Base, and in 1976 she went back to school and earned a master’s degree in Elementary Education from the University of Wyoming. Byrd soon became concerned about the lack of benefits for teachers and inadequate materials used in the classroom.
After 37 years of teaching in Cheyenne Byrd took her career in a different direction. Inspired by her father who gave her the money needed to run for office Byrd won the race for state representative as a Democrat in a year in which the elections favored Republicans. After serving eight years, she ran for and won election to the Wyoming State Senate in 1988, where she served four years. She was the first African American to ever serve in the Wyoming State Senate. The four-term representative and two-term state senator spent nearly a decade persuading other state legislators to endorse a paid holiday on Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday. While the holiday was recognized in 1991, Wyoming refers to as “Equality Day.” Byrd also worked on passing key legislations such as providing handicap parking, creating social services for adults and enforcing the use of child safety restraints for Wyoming’s citizens. A recipient of a number of awards and honors during her time in public service, Mrs. Byrd’s tireless work and reputation has made her well loved throughout the region.
After retirement from the legislature, Byrd remained active in the Cheyenne community along with her husband, James “Jim” W. Byrd. James also set a precedent as the first African American Police chief in Cheyenne.