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Harriet Elizabeth "Liz" Byrd
As a child, Harriet Elizabeth "Liz" Byrd used the University of Wyoming campus as a playground.
She recalls playing house and having tea parties with UW teachers. She even remembers receiving gifts from some faculty and staff members at the holidays.
"I knew more teachers than children," Byrd says. "I would usually go by and say, ‘Good morning!" to most of them every day. Most all of the teachers knew me."
Some 80 years later, Byrd is still known on the UW campus. Not as the cheerful young girl of her childhood but as one of the most influential people in state history.
To recognize her many contributions to Wyoming, both as an educator and legislator, UW African American and Diaspora Studies (AADS) recently created the Harriet Elizabeth "Liz" Byrd Speaker Series. AADS is working to raise $25,000 to endow the series, which will bring minority educators and speakers to UW and serve to honor the woman who sponsored legislation that, in 1990, established Martin Luther King, Jr./Wyoming Equality Day as a state holiday.
"I can't think of a better person to represent the University of Wyoming," says AADS Director Tracey O. Patton. "She's emblematic of what we all hope to accomplish in life. I think every person on this planet would like to affect positive change for the world. Very few of us get to do that but she did. She has made lives better in the state of Wyoming."
A fourth generation Wyomingite born into the Rhone family in 1926, Byrd overcame racial discrimination to grow into one of the state's most respected educators and revolutionary legislators.
After graduating in 1944 from Cheyenne High School, which later became Cheyenne Central, Byrd studied to become a teacher at West Virginia State College, a predominately black school about 1,400 miles away from home. Upon graduation, Byrd returned to Cheyenne but was denied entry into the Laramie County School District, despite being one of only a few teaching applicants to hold a college degree, because of her color.
Instead, Byrd launched an award-winning teaching career that spanned 37 years at F.E. Warren Air Force Base. She later returned to school, earning her M.A. from UW in 1976, before emerging on the political scene.
The first African American to be elected to the Wyoming State Senate, Byrd played a prominent role in several pieces of legislation that Patton says were "beneficial to the entire state," including laws to enforce the use of child safety restraints, provide adequate handicapped parking and create social services for adults.
Byrd will forever be remembered as the central figure in a nearly decade-long struggle in the legislature to endorse a paid holiday on the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr. UW's observance is highlighted by Days of Dialogue, a weeklong event of special activities to recognize the continuing impact of King's life.
"When the legislature passed the annual holiday, I was so happy," says Byrd, who still counts the UW campus among her favorite places. "I was so proud of my state at that time."
Byrd retired after serving four terms as a state representative and two terms as a state senator. Now 85, Byrd lives in the north Cheyenne house that she and her late husband, Jim, purchased in the 1960s. Jim Byrd also has a claim to fame: He was the first African American police chief in state history.
"Mrs. Byrd is truly an incredible woman who has had such a significant impact on this state," Patton says. "She happened to be born with brown skin. She just didn't let that stop her."
A Photo Timeline of Harriet Elizabeth "Liz" Byrd's Life