Wyoming seemed an unlikely place for African Americans to build a community, especially at the turn of the 20th century. At that time, Blacks were considered an “isolated minority.” In fact, only 65 out of 10,915 farms in the state were owned by “Negro and other non-white farmers,” according to a June 1911 Cheyenne State Leader report.
Such statistics suggest that little African-American history is expected to be uncovered in a place like Wyoming, yet people of color have contributed to its culture since before the Cowboy State was a state. Among them were Charles and Rosetta Speese, and three of Charles’ brothers, John, Joseph and Radford, who, after migrating from Nebraska, founded the community of Empire in 1908.
The family purchased about 800 acres of land on the Nebraska-Wyoming state line near Torrington, Wyo. This was the land that became Empire.
The settlement quickly populated with successful, forward-thinking Blacks, burgeoning into a powerful community. A public school was established in 1909; in 1911, an ordained Presbyterian minister and teacher arrived, becoming the community’s leader as a teacher, preacher and postmaster.
The post office was established in 1912, followed in 1916 by a new larger building for the already-established Grace Presbyterian Church. Although it was an all-Black community, all establishments in Empire were open to the general public with no regard to race despite segregation and miscegenation laws.
At this point, the settlement’s population had reached about 50 citizens. At its peak, it would boast 65 Black-owned farms. However, because of Empire’s positive contribution to the state, and being on the heels of an ongoing economic heyday, racism reared its ugly head.
The Black community was immediately blamed for any mishaps or missing items. Torrington courts were prejudiced, siding with the white community. This spurred John Speese to become an attorney for Empire’s citizens.
From 1904 to 1920, five Black men were lynched in Wyoming. One of the worst of these was Baseman Taylor in 1913.
Taylor had become paranoid and threatening, prompting his family to commit him to the Wyoming Hospital for the Insane. Baseman did not resist when taken into custody, yet the Goshen County sheriff used excessive force resulting in Baseman’s head injury. Almost immediately, Baseman suffered seizures.
With no jail in the new county, prisoners were held at the Torrington Hotel. There, Baseman was shackled to a bed where other prisoners and hotel guests witnessed him beaten, burned, choked, pinched and abused. He died at the hotel after three days of torture by law enforcement. His death went on record as a preexisting medical condition.
Blacks in Empire came to the realization that the securing of civil rights, safety and security and freedom from racism that they sought did not exist. By 1920, the population declined to 23. By 1930, only four Blacks remained in Empire.
Today the nameless grave of an infant is among scant traces left of Empire. A plaque reads: “Afro American” at the foot of the metal pipe cross, 40 yards beyond the rural cemetery fence.