Black History Month: Empire, Wyoming

Feb 26, 2021

A snippet from the front page of the December 9, 1909 issue of the Torrington Telegraph. Sally Thistle, J. W. Speese, and O. R. Taylor were prominent residents of Empire.

In honor of Black History Month, we’re taking a look at Empire, Wyoming, the first entirely African-American community in the Equality State. While the town has faded into history along with many of its wild west counterparts, the impact of its community members was revolutionary. Empire began in Goshen County near present-day Torrington, Wyoming, in 1908. Encouraged to travel west by the Homestead Act of 1862 and the Enlarged Homestead Act of 1909, the town was founded by African-American families seeking a racially self-sufficient and politically autonomous community. Communities like Empire could also be found in other western states, but it was the only one of its kind in Wyoming.

The town had its own postal services, two churches, a schoolhouse, and at its peak boasted 36 families, according to the 1910 census. Prominent residents of the community include Russell Taylor, an ordained Presbyterian minister and cofounder of Empire; Sally Thistle, a local teacher; and the Speese family, who cofounded the town with the Taylor family. Empire Post Office was established on April 10, 1912 and operated until August 14, 1920. Laws in Wyoming during this time required schools to segregate their students if there were more than 15 non-white students, and thanks to Taylor, Empire used this to its advantage by having its own entirely African-American student population within their town rather than having to send students to the school in Torrington ten miles away. The Empire school hired an African-American teacher, Sally Thistle, and Taylor also taught at the school for many years. (In the newspaper clipping pictured from 1909, Miss Thistle of the Sheep Creek school was said to be “proving to be a good instructor to the pupils.”)

By the 1920s, Empire was fading away due to harsh farming conditions, racial tensions, and community isolation. Today, travelers can “visit” Empire, Wyoming at the Sheep Creek Cemetery just a mile over the Nebraska stateline, or via the Wyoming Places Database.

Want to learn more about Wyoming’s Empire?

Making a Home in Empire, Wyo. by

Empire, Wyoming by the Alliance for History Wyoming

Empire Wyoming | Homestead National Historical Park by the National Park Service

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