The name Joe Martin isn’t known to many people in Wyoming, where the history of racial violence remains buried beneath a romantic narrative focused on women’s suffrage and the difficulties of settling cattle ranches.
But on Aug. 29, 1904, a white mob in Laramie lynched Martin, a black man, accused of assaulting a white woman, at the intersection of Sixth Street and Grand Avenue. Martin wasn’t the only black Wyomingite denied due process and murdered at the hands of vigilantes during an era of unchecked racial violence most closely associated with the American South.
According to one of the few historical reports available on racial violence in Wyoming, approximately 34 Black people suffered a similar fate between 1889 and 1934.
Bringing those and other stories of Black life in Wyoming into current community conversations about systemic racism in Wyoming — which came to a head this summer after a white police officer killed unarmed Black Minneapolis resident George Floyd — is something recent University of Wyoming graduate Timberly Vogel hopes to do with the help of the UW’s Black Studies Center, which opened earlier this month.
The center will host speakers, promote and allow for new research on the Black experience in rural areas, foster culturally responsive teaching, and develop related community programming. Nearly 100 people attended its inaugural webinar, “After Fifty Years, Does Black Studies Matter? A Critical Critique,” last week.
Vogel, who led several highly publicized racial justice protests in Laramie this summer, said holding those conversations is one example of how the Black Studies Center can keep this summer’s momentum alive.
“It’s a concrete source of education that people won’t really be able to disregard,” she said, as she took a break from her in-depth research project on lynching in Wyoming.
She’s already working on erecting a physical marker in Laramie to serve as a reminder of the state’s legacy of racial violence, but sees the center as a place that can further engage her research and educate locals about why remembering that history is critical to advancing meaningful community dialogue.
‘Lynching existed here’“It’s about first acknowledging that lynching existed here,” said Vogel. Her goal in working with the center is to provide anyone who’s interested with a more comprehensive history of Laramie and the state, and how it’s affected “what things looks today.”
Vogel, who moved from Nashville, Tennessee, to attend UW, said she knew all about the history and legacy of racism in the South because “you can’t avoid” the mountains of literature on the region’s infamously violent past. But in Wyoming, which had a lynching rate 62 times higher than the national average, “none of my classmates seemed to know about this history — and didn’t have any access to that history.”
Vogel said “there didn’t seem to be any black history in Wyoming,” but she learned she was “very wrong” once she started taking courses in UW’s African-American and Diaspora Studies Department.
Frederick Douglass Dixon, an assistant professor in the department and founding director of the Black Studies Center, said correcting that experience is part of the center’s mission.
“The research center is an enhancement to what happens in academia,” said Dixon, who noted that rigorous standards of professional scholarship sometimes makes it inaccessible to those outside the field. “We want to extend the mainstream narrative and add to the dominant discourse. That’s where the center comes into play.”
‘The time had come’Dixon said he’s wanted to open the center for years.
Much like the creation of UW’s African-American and Diaspora Studies Department, the Black Studies Center opened this year to meet a specific moment.
Although Black UW students had called for an African-American Studies Department since the Black 14 protest of 1969, it only opened in the 1990s after the U.S. Department of Justice ordered it as a remedy to racial tension on campus.
More than 20 years later, the Black Studies Center opened this fall in part because of national and local outrage over persistent systemic racism ingrained into American life.
“The mood on campus this summer reflected national unrest among some populations — particularly young white college students — who had not literally gotten into the movement,” Dixon said. “We saw them come off the sidelines. There was an uptick in responses (compared) to some of the other police slayings of Black men. It seemed the time had come to open the center.”
Only about 1.3% of Wyomingites — and an even smaller percentage of UW students — identify as Black. But Dixon said those demographics give even more purpose to UW’s Black Studies Center.
“As monolithic as it is, Wyoming is a microcosm that represents certain populations of America. … There’s not a place that needs it more than Wyoming because of its history, because of its population and the political atmosphere,” he said, noting the widespread calls across the state and nation to diversify the groups of people in power.
“Now is the ultimate time for a place like the Black Studies Center, and what it can bring as far as diversity, research and the need to become expansive in curriculum development.”
The center, whose only costs so far include the time faculty and students will devote to its programming, is part of a larger social justice initiative at UW.
Focus on rural issues
In the coming weeks, the university also plans to launch the Rural Social Justice Center, which will serve as the umbrella organization for the Black Studies Center and eventually a Native Language Revitalization Center.
“The reason why we’re moving toward centers is because it provides a structural mechanism to do a lot of important work and move forward a number of initiatives,” said Jacquelyn Bridgeman, a UW law professor and director of the School of Culture, Gender and Social Justice, which oversees the African-American and Diaspora Studies Department.
“A lot of the theory and discussion (of social justice, race and gender) happens in cities, and a lot of that isn’t very useful to a place like Wyoming,” said Bridgeman, who hopes the center’s focus on rural issues will help “shift that conversation,” and make UW “one of the top schools for social justice in the country.”
And she’s already seen firsthand how the Black Studies Center’s focus on community engagement will serve an unmet need.
“After George Floyd happened, I think there was hardly a day that went by that someone didn’t call me asking for (advice) on how to talk about these things in their very rural Wyoming communities. They didn’t even know where to start,” Bridgeman said.
While the Black Studies Center doesn’t have the capacity to facilitate those conversations in every individual Wyoming community, Bridgeman said it can “hold a conversation that’s open for everyone to come to the table for.”