Category Archives: Black History

A Thread of Blackness

Guest post by A. Rochaun Meadows-Fernandez

Our guest blogger is A. Rochaun Meadows-Fernandez.  A writer and researcher who visited the State Archives, she discovered something she didn’t expect to see in our collections:  herself.  We were delighted to read her account of her visit, and to share it with you.

This essay was originally published in The New Territory magazine, Issue 9, 2020.

I was fresh out of college with idealized images of life after graduation when my new husband dropped two bombs on me. The first: He’d decided to go active-duty military. The second: We would be moving to Wyoming soon, and he would go ahead without me to find us a home.

Born and raised in the diverse and highly populated Dallas, Texas, I had no intentions of moving. I felt blindsided by my lack of choice and the mere three months I had to prepare. I was anxious about leaving my family and experiencing such a huge shift in demographics.

Image showing Demarse Tolliver the first Black child born in Wyoming Territory. The young woman is looking down holding her necklace.
Demarse Tolliver, shown in this portrait, is the first Black child on record born in the Wyoming Territory. (WSA, Meyers Neg 0989)

During the ride there, as the city streets I’d grown accustomed to faded and dirt roads became the norm, my apprehension multiplied. How could a city girl like me adjust to this new world? And how would I find community when my research indicated that less than 2% of the population in the entire state was Black like me? I secretly wished for a call from my husband saying he’d changed his mind or — better yet – that it was all just a practical joke.

The first couple of weeks were spent in denial. I’d arrived on a long weekend, so my husband and I were able to enjoy our honeymoon phase we didn’t have while living with family. But when I finally stepped out into the brutal Wyoming winter, I could no longer pretend that nothing had changed. The snow and the people were all foreign to me, and I longed to return home. I was both literally and metaphorically surrounded by whiteness.

Tom West standing with two unidentified people in front of the Black and Tan Club. Tom West was the son of Lola West who owned the Black and Tan Club. The Black and Tan Club was a popular spot for Cheyenne’s Black community to gather. (WSA, Subject Negative 23563)

The demographics weren’t much better on the base. There were many military spouses, but few of them cared for my conversations on the Black experience or my feelings of loneliness as a Black woman. I remember crying my eyes out after walking into Spencer’s at the local mall and seeing a wall adorned with a wide range of Confederate flag paraphernalia. I was resentful towards my husband for having brought me here and angry at myself for coming. By the third month, I’d given up on making friends or feeling like I would belong. But I refused to stay in the house. The quaint layout of downtown reminded me of the university town where I’d spent the last four years, and I was curious about what secrets hid behind the weathered buildings.

It took over a year before I ended up at the Wyoming State Museum and found its best-kept secrets.

The bulk of the museum was dedicated to retellings of settling the West and its rich history of natural resources. Yet the milestones of women’s suffrage and the inspiring stories of Native resistance piqued my interest, though I didn’t feel either was thoroughly covered in these displays. I wanted to know more about marginalized people who made it despite being othered. My curiosity led me across the hall to the Wyoming State Archives.

I began by flipping through images and newspaper clippings related to women’s and Native histories in Wyoming. After a short time, I gathered the courage to ask if there were records about Black people. The volunteer laughed at my question and replied, Of course! Within minutes I was nose deep in stories and photographs of Black Americans in 18th-century attire who inhabited the Midwest. My heart raced with joy upon realizing I was far from the first Black person to reside in the Plains. Not only did we exist – we often thrived.

Children standing in front of the Black and Tan Club . The children that are identified are Joyce and Leon Reed and Barry West. Lola West, the owner of the Black and Tan Club, was a key witness in a 1944 bribery case against Cheyenne Mayor Ira L. Hanna and his co-conspirators. Lola’s eye witness testimony and the fact she wrote down the serial numbers of bills she used to pay a $100 protection fee were instrumental in the conviction of these men. (WSA, Subject Negative 23564)

For Black Americans, the West offered an opportunity to work in isolation from the rest of the nation. The region was so underpopulated that work ethic could potentially outweigh race, and Black settlers took advantage of the opportunity. There were photographs of Black landowners who even sustained full communities. It was impossible not to see my connection with these early Black settlers. My husband and I were also seeking a better life and had hoped to gain financial independence and to start a family in the sparsely populated state. With each image, I started to feel less like a random demographic dot and more like the continuation of a long thread of Blackness.

Despite being called “The Equality State,” things weren’t equal for Black Americans. However, I was also shocked to find that, in some ways, Wyoming’s treatment of Black Americans had been less harsh than other regions. For example. in November 1869, Black women in Wyoming Territory became the first black women in the nation to gain the right to vote1. I also learned of the Buffalo Soldiers2, the all-Black 9th and 10th cavalries whose earliest members were mostly ex-slaves, and how they accomplished noteworthy missions despite fighting both a war and racial adversity. They are even memorialized as statues right outside the military base.

But the mid- to late 1800s were long before my time, and I craved more recent examples of our footprint on the territory. It didn’t take long to find it. I quickly learned the Black citizens of Wyoming didn’t allow their low numbers to shock them into silence.

Liz Byrd was born and raised in Cheyenne. In an interview with the Casper Star Tribune her granddaughter, Sierra Rhone Byrd, said her grandmother’s favorite part of growing up in Cheyenne was Frontier Days. Liz Byrd left a legacy of education, public service and social justice in Wyoming. (WSA, Subject Negative 23951)

Harriett Elizabeth “Liz” Byrd3, whose grandfather. Charles Rhone, arrived in Wyoming Territory as a child in 1876, was the first example. A fourth generation Wyomingite, Byrd went on to be the first fully certified, full-time black teacher in Wyoming and the first Black woman elected into the Wyoming legislature, having served as a state representative and later serving in the Senate. Her husband, James Byrd, was retired military and served for 16 years as the state’s first Black police chief. The Byrd family legacy is a long list of noteworthy accomplishments and community first. But it’s vital to mention that the road was far from easy. It included intense encounters with those who adamantly resisted racial equality and change in the Midwest. Liz and James Byrd had three children, one of whom is currently involved4 in Wyoming politics.

On top of that, long before Colin Kaepernick, The Black 14 and several other Black students at the University of Wyoming were expelled after wearing armbands in protest of several political issues5. I felt pride knowing that regardless of where we were, we found ways to take a stand against injustice. Wyoming might have been mostly white, but the history went far beyond whiteness.

I’d been lost in the archives for hours. Just hearing the stories gave me a sense of belonging, and my willingness to find my place was renewed. I knew the thread of Blackness hadn’t stopped in the ‘60s, so I started looking for the remnants of Black social change in Wyoming today. Coincidentally, I heard about the Black Heritage Month celebration and, a few months later, I finally found the community I longed for. When I entered the church-held event, I saw pew after pew of Black Wyomingites. I started to cry. Like most places, faith was what held the Black community of Wyoming together.

I began meeting more Black elders and asking their stories about migrating here. Many had been here for three or four generations. Their parents and grandparents came seeking opportunities with the railroads, military and agriculture. For them, Wyoming was the only home they’d ever known. I began asking myself why I thought I didn’t belong here — and why I felt my presence here needed to be explained. My predecessors and these living elders had already explained their presence, so I didn’t need to explain mine.

With time, I started seeing more young Black military migrants navigating the same things I’d experienced. I’d tell them that it gets better, let them know we are not the first nor the last, and I made it a priority to suggest they visit the State Archives, too.

Almost five years later, I’ve met so many people and heard so many stories. I still see the occasional Confederate flag, but now I know they have no ties to the territory of Wyoming. My people belong here just as much as anyone else. And as my husband and I raise our two children here, I look forward to passing on that message.

Wyoming isn’t home for good. But it’s a good home for now.

FOOTNOTES

  1. Tom Rea, “Right Choice, Wrong Reasons: Wyoming Women Win the Right to Vote,” https://wwwwyohistoryorg/encyclopedia/right-choice-wrong-reasons-wyoming-women-win-right-vote  
  2. Tom Rea, “Buffalo Soldiers in Wyoming and the West,” https://wwwwyohistory.org/encyclopedia/buffalo-soldiers-wyoming-and-west
  3. Lori Von Pelt, “Liz Byrd, First Black Woman in Wyoming’s Legislature,” https://www.wyohistoryorg/encyclopedia/liz-byrd-first-black-woman-wyoming-legislature  
  4. Joel Funk, “Cheyenne Democrat James Byrd to run for Wyoming Secretary of State,” Wyoming Tribune Eagle, https://www.wyomingnews.com/news/local_news/cheyenne-democrat-james-byrd-to-run-for-wyoming-secretary-of-state/article_0b336600-0d69-11e8-ad2c-4fe44ed691bf.html
  5. Phil White, “The Black 14: Race, Politics, Religion, and Wyoming Football,”  https://www.wyohistory.org/encyclopedia/black-14-race-politics-religion-and-wyoming-football

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Filed under Black History, Eyewitness to History, In The News, The Rest of the Story..., Uncategorized

The Lynching of Frank Wigfall

By: Robin Everett, Wyoming State Archives

The following contains graphic accounts of assault and death. The language used in quotations includes racial slurs not considered acceptable today but are included for historical accuracy and context.

Lynching is a premeditated, extrajudicial means of execution by hanging, often by a mob, and often without a legal trial of the individual. Lynchings were not uncommon in Wyoming’s early history.[1] While most victims were white men, at least one white woman, and twenty-eight Chinese men [1A] were murdered in this manner.  Accounts vary as to how many African Americans were lynched in Wyoming, though at least five are documented.[2]

In 1912 alone, there were fifty-two lynchings in the United States.  Of that number, all but two were of African Americans.  Alleged crimes against women or girls or accusations of the murder of a white person accounted for nearly all of those cases.[3]  Wyomingite Frank Wigfall was one such case.

WY Pen 806 from neg, Frank Wigfall, mug shot

These pictures were taken during Frank Wigfall’s second stay at the Wyoming State Penitentiary between 1904 and 1912. He was released less than 6 months before his death. (WSA Wyoming Penitentiary mug shots, Inmate 806)

Frank Wigfall was either thirty-nine or forty-nine years old at the time of his death.  He was born in South Carolina but his year of birth remains disputed.  In his application for a pardon in 1911, he lists his birthday as April 15, 1862.  However, the 1910 US Federal Census lists him as age 37, which would make his birth year 1872-73, as does his 1901 reception paperwork at the Penitentiary.[4] He very well may have been the child of slaves.  Frank had never married and said he came to Wyoming around the age of twenty-four, after “wandering from here and there.”  [5]

WY Pen 570, Frank Wigfall, mug shot 1901

Frank Wigfall arrived at the State Penitentiary in June 1901, when this photo was taken for his inmate file. (WY Penitentiary mug shots, Inmate 570)

Wigfall first comes to our attention in 1901, when he is arrested in Cheyenne on the charge of assault with intent to kill.  On April 9 he stabbed a young roust-about, Ollie Buckley in a local saloon.  According to the newspaper account, Wigfall was warned several times about his loud conduct, and Buckley attempted to quiet him.  Wigfall lunged at Buckley and stabbed him in the chest with a penknife.  The knife struck the pericardial sac around the heart, leaving Buckley’s life in peril.  Buckley and others in the saloon provided the county attorney with testimony of the event, leading to Wigfall’s arrest, conviction, and sentence of eighteen months to the State Penitentiary.[6]   His reception paperwork at the penitentiary shows him as twenty-eight years of age.[7]

Cheyenne Daily Leader April 26, 1901, page 4 crop

Cheyenne Daily Leader April 26, 1901, p4

Following his release, in 1902, Wigfall stayed in the Rawlins area, advertising in the newspaper as an “experienced colored man, does all sorts of house cleaning.  Can be found at W. D. Davis’ saloon on Front Street”.[8] In 1903 he moved to Laramie and worked as a night foreman at the Union Pacific rolling mills. The mill made new steel rails out of high-quality recycled railroad track.  While in Laramie, Wigfall shared a room with a co-worker at the mill named Dave Brown.[9]  Dave was friendly with a white woman, Mrs. Kruppa, and her twelve-year-old daughter, Helen.  While Frank had seen the women, he later asserted that he had not had any contact with them. [10]

On January 21, 1904, Wigfall was arrested in Laramie for the attempted rape of Helen Kruppa.  Following his arrest and positive identification by both the girl and her mother, Wigfall, fearful of a lynching, agreed to plead guilty if authorities would take him away from the city. His fears were justified. Once the news became known around the community, “there was considerable talk among some of the more irresponsible citizens of a lynching”.[11] Justice was swift and after a hearing, Wigfall was sentenced to the full extent of the law, fourteen years.  He was quickly put on the next train to Rawlins with Sheriff Cook.  When he returned from the trip, Sheriff Cook reported that Wigfall had confessed to his crime during the ride. [12]

During his term in the Penitentiary Wigfall held several different positions.  He tied brooms in the broom factory until his eyesight failed and made working in the dark difficult. He also worked in the kitchen, one of the few warm places in the facility during the winter, thanks to the ovens. Near the end of his incarceration, Wigfall became a porter and waiter in the Warden’s residence off of the Pen grounds. Only prisoners who earned the trust of the warden held this prestigious position and it meant Wigfall ate better than the inmates at the pen.  

In April 1911, Wigfall applied for a pardon from Governor Joseph Carey.  In the application, Warden Felix Alston stated that Wigfall “has been a perfect prisoner, will finish a fourteen-year sentence on the 28th of April 1912, and as far as behavior is concerned here it could not be better.” Alston also stated that Wigfall, “has been working for a few weeks doing porter work for me here, a good respectable and gentlemanly ‘darkey’ as one can meet.”  Also, as part of his application, Wigfall offered that following his release he would be working for Frank Ryan in retail liquor.[13]   Governor Carey did not grant the pardon, and Wigfall remained in prison for one more year.

wy-arrg0001_0018_0016_53_petitions for pardons wigfall frank-2_page-0001

When Wigfall petitioned for a pardon, Warden Felix Alston wrote a glowing review of his behavior while incarcerated.  (WSA, wy-arrg0001_0018_0016_53_petitions for pardons wigfall frank. )

Because of Good Time accrued, Wigfall was released from prison on April 15, 1912.  Less than a month later, he ran advertisements in the local Rawlins paper offering his cleaning services.  [14]

On September 30, 1912, Mrs. Esther Higgins was viciously attacked and Wigfall was accused of the crime.  Mrs. Higgins, aged in her seventies, commonly known as “Granny Higgins” was well known to both the Rawlins community and the inmates of the Penitentiary.  She would often visit, bring homemade baked goods for the inmates to enjoy. 

According to newspaper accounts, late on the evening of the 30th, Wigfall broke into Higgins’ home by beating down the door with an ax.  He sexually assaulted Mrs. Higgins, threatening her with death if she cried out for help.  In the event of his discovery, he broke out a window for easy escape.  Wigfall left in the early hours of the morning, leaving Mrs. Higgins to fend for herself.  In her beleaguered condition, she was able to crawl to a neighbor’s house for help.  Soon the authorities were on alert and the search began for Wigfall. 

Word of the attack spread through the community and concerned citizens were told to be on the lookout for Wigfall as well.  Wigfall was quickly captured by a posse at Fort Steele and brought the 17 miles back to Rawlins on the No. 3 train.  A crowd gathered as Undersheriff Mills went to meet the train, but Wigfall was taken to the county jail without incident.  In the meantime, Mayor Morgan had received a call from a concerned citizen warning him that some people were looking to take Wigfall from the jail and lynch him.  Morgan acted quickly.  He met with the Undersheriff, accessed the situation around the town, and asked for Wigfall to be transferred to the Penitentiary.  Warden Alston was hesitant to take Wigfall though, explaining that he did not have the authority to do so.  However, Alston told Morgan that if he could get approval from Cheyenne, he would allow the transfer. 

During Morgan’s attempts to reach the Governor in Cheyenne, crowds were observed to be gathering around the courthouse. 

“At 1 o’clock this morning a mob of citizens marched to the jail and demanded the negro. Sheriff Campbell refused to give up the prisoner and the mob dispersed to secure battering rams and arms. Two hundred strong; they returned in a short time, but in the interim Campbell had rushed the prisoner across two vacant blocks to the penitentiary, where he was locked in a cell on the fifth tier of the main cell-house. When the mob learned of the trick which had outwitted them and that the penitentiary guards had been ordered to fire if an attack was made on the prison, they dispersed quietly.”[15]

Undersheriff Mills and resident Jailer Hugo Rogner took measures to secure Wigfall’s safety.  In case the jail was attacked, duplicate sets of keys were hidden in Rogner’s room.

In the meantime, Morgan was told the Governor was not in Cheyenne and that he would have to contact the Secretary of State. [15A] However, due to miscommunication, Morgan was instead connected to the Governor’s secretary, who explained that if Alston would accept his authority to authorize the transfer, he was giving it. Morgan relayed the information to Alston, who accepted the authority of the secretary.  Wigfall was then secretly taken through the resident portion of the jail, out the kitchen, and across the courtyard to the penitentiary. 

Stimson Neg 992 deriv, Wyoming State Penitentiary

Wigfall was one of the earliest inmates at the newly opened Wyoming State Penitentiary in Rawlins. The first prisoners arrived in December 1901. Though “new”, the cornerstone had been laid 13 years earlier in 1888. Even in 1901, it was not a comfortable place. The building lacked running water, electricity, and adequate heating. The first addition, Cell Block A, was completed in 1904. (WSA Stimson Neg 992, 1905)

By the following morning, word had spread of Wigfall’s presence in the receiving cell.  A fellow inmate, Rich, went to talk to Wigfall, “to find out what he had to say”.  When Rich returned to report on the conversation, he was excited.  He said that Wigfall did not seem worried about the heinousness of the crime.  Boasting, Wigfall said “well I ain’t worrin’ any.  Because I will be down at the warden’s house anyway after I get sentenced; if I get one year, five years, or fourteen years, why I can do that easy”.  Wigfall apparently assumed he would earn Altson’s trust again and  quickly return to working at Warden Alston’s residence downtown. [16]

After breakfast the morning of Wigfall’s return, inmates started their day by doing their assigned duties.  One crew was busy scrubbing the floors, another working in the yard.  The Cell House guard, John Neale was doing his morning inspections of cells on Tier 3.  As a rule, the cell inspection guard was unarmed, which was the case with Neale.  Suddenly, what he estimated at 35-40 men overpowered him, locked him in a cell, and warned him to keep quiet.

Guard David Brinton was on Death Watch.  Because of the wet floor, he was not able to walk the full length of the cellblock.  As he turned, he noticed Wigfall going up the stairs with a rope around his neck.  Brinton jumped over a table and sounded an alarm by ringing a bell. Brinton did not see any other guards in the area.  By the time he returned to where he observed Wigfall going up the stairs, he saw Wigfall hanging from a rope. He then heard Neale calling for assistance, and rushed to find him and release him from the cell.  Both men estimated this all took about five minutes.  Neither guard could identify any of the prisoners with Wigfall, or those who locked Neale in the cell.  Four inmates who were part of the scrubbing crew were brought into the inquest, but they also could not identify the other prisoners.  [17]

Following the Coroner’s Inquest, it was announced that “the jury has been successful in establishing one conclusive fact.  It is certain that Wigfall is dead.”[18] According to Alston, a warning was passed out to all prisoners, and possibly guards, that ‘The first man that squeals is the next man hung,’ The Warden would not divulge his source of the warning.[19]

Even without the luxury of cable news networks, or the internet, the news spread across the nation quickly.  Newspapers reported the story in a variety of different ways, from large sensationalized headlines to small noted articles.  “Convicts Keep Secret Pact – Full details of Lynching May Never be Known”,[20] “Lynched in Penitentiary – Mob couldn’t Break in but Prisoners Ended Life of Frank Wigfall.”[21] The mystery continued even after the press became bored with the story and moved on. Officials despaired of ever finding out the truth. Decades passed and many forgot about Wigfall and his gruesome demise.  That is until an anonymous diary entry was given to the Carbon County Museum. 

Sweet Smell of Sage book cover, 1994

The pact of silence was finally broken by the anonymous author of the manuscript that would be published in 1994 as The Sweet Smell of Sagebrush.

In 1994, the Friends of the Old Penitentiary in Rawlins published a manuscript that had sat in the museum collection for decades. Written by an anonymous author, The Sweet Smell of Sagebrush: a Prisoner’s Diary 1903-1912 follows a serial horse thief’s halting and often failing efforts to go straight and make an honest man of himself. His failings often land him back in the penitentiary, where he writes candidly about life behind bars in Rawlins. And this anonymous author becomes the one to break the pact of silence and tell the harrowing full story as he witnessed it. 

Sub Neg 26033, SPEN98, WYOMING STATE PENITENTIARY HALLWAY VIEW SHOWING TIERS OF CELLS

Cells in the State Penitentiary were arranged in three tiers opening onto a common walkway or gallery. (WSA, SPEN-98, Not Dated)

“A small bunch of men came in the outside door as though they were about a half hour late for dinner and hungry as wolves.  And they were late and hungry as wolves, but not for dinner.  The little delegation was made up of such gentlemen as Burke, Paseo, Howard, Brink, and Elliott.  They were mad as though to continue their way through the kitchen into the cell house, and Wigfall.  Brink interposed between them and the door.   The rope was dumped from the can and thrown out on to the floor where the kinks were run out.  Brink said, ‘Now wait a minute fellows, two of you go into the cell house and capture Jack (the cell house guard).  Take the keys away from him, lock him in a cell.  Don’t hurt him.’  Two men turned and ran through the door into the cell house to overpower the guard and the whole outfit followed right on their heels.  Brink and one other ran down the south side of the cell house looking for Jack.  There were a few men in sight as it was early and they had not even started the usual morning’s work, such as sweeping the floor and so on.  There was a man named Jenkins in the condemned cell at that time the guard who was acting as death watch was standing plain view in front of the death cell.  He started to look out the window to sound the alarm but was confronted by one of the invaders armed with a knife.  He was ordered to the back of the cell house, and he obeyed.  The guard they were looking for was nowhere in sight.  Brink ran clear around and through the alley to the north side of the place, as he emerged from the alley he ran out so he could look upon the galleries, at the same time saying, ‘I wonder where in the same hill Jack can be.’  The rest of the lynchers had gone down the north side and were congregated in front of the Wigfall’s cell.  Jack was walking the galleries, the first one above the floor right above Wigfall’s cell.  He held the keys in his hand the same as usual.  Brink leaped upon the table and from there to the gallery.  He grappled with the guard, who struggled to free himself.  He was anything but a strong man physically and was helpless in the grasp of the husky blacksmith Brink.  Burke leaped from the table and grasped the bunch of keys which he jerked from Jack’s hand.  The keys were in turn snatched from the hand of Burke and the door of Wigfall’s cell unlocked in a twinkling.  Wigfall could be seen cowering in the farthest corner.  He was instantly grasped and yanked out through the door where the rope was thrown in a double half hitch about his neck.  From the time when he was pulled from the cell, he never had an opportunity to stand still, the outfit went at double quick time towards the stairs to the galleries.  Wigfall was clothed only in a night shirt.  Rich didn’t want to be seen with the outfit and after they got to the stairs, he went back in the direction of the tailor shop.  They went up the stairs to the top gallery and stopped at the place where previously a man committed suicide by jumping off the gallery.  Wigfall was ordered to jump off the gallery but didn’t seem anxious to obey.  He was menaced by a knife in the hand of Paseo.  He asked that he be allowed time in which to pray.  He was told that if he could make it short enough that he would have time to offer a prayer while making the decent [sic].  He was forded over the railing and he went down hand over hand like a sailor.  He dropped and caught the railing on the gallery below.  He was instantly dislodged from there by one of the party who had gone downstairs to forestall just such a move.  He fell to the end of the rope.  He was then drawn up by those at the top and dropped the entire distance again a few minutes later. In a few minutes, somebody ran out to where the men were working on the shop building and shouted, ‘Wigfall has been hung!’ The men outside all dropped their work and ran to the cell house.  They secured a large packing case and placed it under a window.  From a position on the box they could see into the cell house.  They hung on each other’s clothes in the effort to climb up to where they could get a view of what was inside”.  [22]

Wigfall lynchers composite

Herbert Brink, Lorenzo Paseo, and Robert Elliott were named by the anonymous author as members of the group of prisoners who lynched Wigfall in 1912. Brink (Inmate 1443), a former blacksmith from Big Horn County, was serving a life sentence for 1st degree murder. Paseo (Inmate 1444), a laborer from Mexico, was serving a life sentence, commuted from death, for 1st degree murder. Paseo was killed in October 1912 during an escape attempt. Elliott (Inmate 1527) was a repeat offender from Carbon County serving 2-3 years for forgery. (WSA, Wyoming Penitentiary mug shots)

While this account clears up who was involved, it still leaves the question of motive. Was Frank Wigfall lynched as a form of prison justice, because he bragged that serving any amount of time for the crime was going to be easy whether he did it in the kitchen or at the warden’s house. Was he lynched for the alleged crime against Mrs. Higgins? Or was there something else? What part did Wigfall’s race play in the fact – and the form – of his murder?  Only those involved know the answer to those and many other questions surrounding the death of Frank Wigfall.   


Resources

1. Davis, John W. Goodbye, Judge Lynch: the End of a Lawless Era in Wyoming’s Big Horn Basin. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, c2005.
1A. In 1885, 28 Chinese mine-workers were lynched during the Rock Springs Massacre. The racially charged riot was initiated by white miners who resented Chinese miners brought in by the Union Pacific Coal Company to break a miners strike. The result was robbing, looting, assault, and near-total destruction of Rock Spring’s Chinese community.
2. Davis, John W. Goodbye, Judge Lynch: the End of a Lawless Era in Wyoming’s Big Horn Basin. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, c2005.
3. The Andalusia Star, Andalusia, Alabama; Jan 2, 1913, Page 8 (newspapers.com)
4. Ancestry – 1910 US Federal Census accessed on June 5, 2020
5. Governor John Carey – Applications for Pardon – Wyoming State Archives
6. Cheyenne Daily Leaderno. 187 April 26, 1901, page 4
7. Board of Charities and Reform Records – Bertillon Book
8. Rawlins Republican October 25, 1902 pg. 5
9. Governor Joseph Carey – Applications for Pardon – Wyoming State Archives
10. Governor Joseph Carey – Applications for Pardon – Wyoming State Archives
11. Laramie Boomerang no. 268 January 21, 1904, page 1
12. Semi-Weekly Boomerang no. 79 January 25, 1904, page 4
13. Governor Joseph Carey – Applications for Pardon – Wyoming State Archives
14. Carbon County Journal no. 42 May 24, 1912, page 8
15. Wyoming Tribune no. 236 October 02, 1912, page 1
15A. According to Wyoming’s rules of succession, the Secretary of State serves as acting governor in the event that the Governor is either out of state or unable to fulfill his duties.
16. Hudson, William Stanley. The sweet smell of Sagebrush: a prisoner’s diary, 1903-1912 / written anonymously in Wyoming Frontier Prison, Rawlins, Wyoming. Rawlins, Wyo.: Friends of the Old Pen: Old Penitentiary Joint Powers Board, 1994
17. Carbon County Clerk of District Court – Coroner Inquest, Frank Wigfall October 2, 1912
18. Laramie Republican (Weekly ed.)no. 16 October 12, 1912, page 7
19. Tribune Stockman Farmer no. 80 October 04, 1912, page 1
20. Slaunton Daily Leader – (Slaunton Virginia) October 4, 1912 pg. 1 (Newspapers.com)
21. New Castle News – (New Castle, Pennsylvania) October 2, 1912 (Newspapers.com
22. Sweet Smell of Sagebrush

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Filed under Black History, Crime and Criminals, Eyewitness to History, Wyoming State Penitentiary

Lola West, Cheyenne African American Entrepreneur

Sub Neg 23565, LOLA WEST, OWNER BLACK & TAN CLUB

Lola West, owner of the Black and Tan Cafe, standing with an unidentified man. Wyo State Archives Sub Neg 23565

Lola West was the owner of the successful Black and Tan Cafe, a popular destination for African American Cheyenne residents and Fort FE Warren soldiers. She was a key witness in the 1944 case against Mayor of Cheyenne Ira L. Hanna, Chief of Police Jess B. Ekdall, Captain Gerald J. Morris and Sergeant E.K. Violette of the Cheyenne police force for soliciting and accepting bribes. Her eye witness testimony and her foresight in marking down the serial numbers of the bills she used to pay one of her $100 “protection” money payoffs were instrumental in the conviction of these men.

West was born on January 3, 1892, in Arkansas. We know Lola came to Wyoming with her husband William H. West sometime around 1925. The couple is first mentioned in the 1926 Cheyenne City Directory. West is marked as the head of the house in the 1930 Federal Census and the 1940 Federal Census. It is unclear what happened to William. We don’t know if he died, the most likely scenario, or if he and West separated.

Lola West 1940

West is entered as head of the household on line 27 of the 1940 Federal Census.

West became embroiled in Mayor Hanna’s bribery scandal on March 1, 1944. West was a key witness for the prosecution. She testified that on March 1 Ekdall and Morris came to her establishment, the Black and Tan Cafe, and said, “they were going to open up the town.” They asked her if she wanted to get in on it. At the time West was boarding soldiers’ wives at the Black and Tan where she had 14 rooms to rent. West was part of a small community of African Americans who all lived on the West side of Cheyenne. Due to Cheyenne’s subtle segregation, West’s soldiers’ wives were, most likely, African-American. West’s establishment would have been one of the only places in Cheyenne where they could live.

When West disclosed this information to Morris he told her to “get some women open the doors, start some gambling and get some liquor.” She was also told if the soldiers’ wives living with her wouldn’t “hustle” to throw them out and get some girls who would. Morris and Ekdall left but then returned around 7 p.m. to ask her how much she could pay. They needed to make a report to the Chief and the Mayor. West was told to have money ready, and “no arguments either,” and to bring her money to W.C. (Pop) Grimes’ Porters and Waiters Club. Grimes was also a key witness for the prosecution. West testified the payment “wasn’t a fine. It was like a tax. It was a payoff.”

West made payments of $100 each on March 4 and March 17. Lola said all four of the defendants were in the room for the transactions. She claimed when she asked what she was paying protection money for the reply was it would allow her to have liquor, gambling, and prostitution at her establishment without a license.

Unbeknownst to Mayor Hanna and his partners West was approached by three federal investigators from the Alcohol Tax Unit to help with a sting operation. L.D. Parker and Fred M. Taylor, two of the investigators with the Alcohol Tax Unit, testified to witnessing a $100 payoff from West. Parker and Taylor were concealed in a room in the Porters and Waiters’ Club and saw Lola West count out the money and place it on the desk in Grime’s office. Sergeant Violette picked it up, and Mayor Hanna said he would count it later.

Parker testified that earlier in the evening he saw West and Grimes talking to Violette and Morris. She complained the $100 was too steep a price and she wanted to speak to the Chief or the Mayor before she paid that much money. Hanna and Ekdall arrived later around ten. Ekdall asked Lola what the trouble was and she told him she didn’t have any ‘girls’, no gambling or liquor and she couldn’t afford to pay the $100. Lola also said she was told she would only have to pay $50. Lola did admit to the federal investigators she sold beer without a license.

West was an African-American businesswoman who challenged the powerful white men of Cheyenne. After the trial, she moved on with her life in Cheyenne. There is hardly anything in the historical record that mentions West before or after the trial. Her name did show up in a 1950 court docket. She was fined for selling liquor without a license. Lola West died at 83 years old on August 24, 1975. According to the notice in the Wyoming State Tribune Lola left behind a large family: six children, 20 grandchildren, 38 great-grandchildren, and two great-great-grandchildren. She is buried in Lakeview Cemetery in Cheyenne.


Resources

Casper Star Tribune, May 4, 1944

Casper Star Tribune,  May 7, 1944

Laramie County District Court CR 8-222, The State of Wyoming V Ira Hanna, Jess B. Ekdall, Gerald J. Morris, E.K.Violette
Laramie County District Court CR 8-223, The State of Wyoming V Ira Hanna, Jess B. Ekdall, Gerald J. Morris, E.K.Violette
Laramie County District Court CR 8-226, The State of Wyoming V Ira Hanna, Jess B. Ekdall, Gerald J. Morris, E.K. Violette
Laramie County District Court CR 8-227,The State of Wyoming V Ira Hanna, Jess B. Ekdall, Gerald J. Morris, E.K.Violette
Laramie County Distirct Court CR 8-228, The State of Wyoming V Ira Hanna, Jess B. Ekdall, Gerald J. Morris, E.K.Violette
Laramie County District Court CR 8-229, The State of Wyoming V Ira Hanna, Jess B. Ekdall, Gerald J. Morris, E.K.Violette

Wyoming State Tribune, March 20, 1944

Wyoming State Tribune, March 21, 1944

Wyoming State Tribune, May 3, 1944

Wyoming State Tribune, August 25, 1975

 

 

 

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Filed under Black History, Cheyenne Mayors, Crime and Criminals, Eyewitness to History