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Photo: Senator Liz Byrd attending the Martin Luther King, Jr./Wyoming Equality Day bill signing, 1990. Harriett Elizabeth Byrd papers.
After nearly three decades of teaching in the Laramie County public school district, Elizabeth “Liz” Byrd decided to run for a seat in the Wyoming House of Representatives. When elected to represent the people of her district, Mrs. Byrd became the first African-American since statehood to serve in the Wyoming state legislature and was the first-ever African-American woman.
As a former “Wyoming Teacher of the Year,” it is no surprise that Mrs. Byrd’s time in office was often noted for its focus on education and children’s issues. In an effort to help raise civic awareness, Mrs. Byrd would often bring school groups with her to the Capitol, so they could become involved in the legislative process. Mrs. Byrd served in the Wyoming House of Representatives from 1981-1989, before being elected to the State Senate where she served two terms.
Mrs. Byrd’s most notable, and longest legislative battle was to get Martin Luther King Jr. Day recognized as a state holiday. Throughout the 1980s, Mrs. Byrd introduced multiple bills in the legislature to recognize Martin Luther King Jr. Day as an official state holiday. Every time, Mrs. Byrd’s proposed bill was defeated, with her colleagues often stating that “there are not enough blacks here [in Wyoming],” for such legislation to pass.
By 1990, Wyoming still did not celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day, despite President Reagan signing the holiday into law in 1983, and it being observed at the federal level since 1986. In 1991, after nearly a decade of setbacks, Mrs. Byrd reached a compromise with her colleagues, and the legislature passed a bill that stated Wyoming would observe Martin Luther King Jr./Equality Day. At the time that Mrs. Byrd’s bill was signed into law by Governor Mike Sullivan, Wyoming was one of the last five states in America to recognize the holiday.