CHEYENNE – Stephen Latham keeps his eyes shut as he sings to his congregation of three. If he had any hesitations about his singing abilities, they didn’t show on a recent Sunday morning at Beautiful Zion Church of God in Christ.
It’s a slow Sunday at the church, with many of its usual parishioners busy with military duties and other obligations. Yet that didn’t stop Latham from leading a service inside the small, inconspicuous building just south of Interstate 80 in Cheyenne.
The light attendance also didn’t stop him from doing something he does every week – picking up his mother Dorothy on the way to church.
There were times when Dorothy thought her son might not return to Cheyenne, yet as she reflected before the recent Sunday service, she said she knew Stephen would take care of her regardless.
“He really is my keeper. Ever since he was little, he would always tell me he was going to take care of me. He hasn’t gotten rich yet, though!” Dorothy, 79, said with a laugh.
While his mother thought he might not return to Cheyenne, other aspects of Latham’s life are less surprising. Perhaps he didn’t envision becoming president of Cheyenne’s NAACP chapter, but Latham always saw himself being active in his community. As Laramie County School District 1 begins to address systemic racism that some children see in their schools, he has emerged as a leader for a community that is sometimes overlooked in Cheyenne.
“We just mainly want to be visible in the city, to let people know that we are here,” Latham, 55, said. “If there are things that the city builds, we’re ready to stand up and accept and help out when we can.”
Finding his identity
As a black person born and raised in Cheyenne, Latham faced racism from an early age.
“Growing up as a kid, when I was in elementary school, just the way some of my friends’ parents treated me, I knew why it was: because of my color,” Latham said. “So that had an effect on me.”
Meanwhile, at home, Latham had plenty of entertainment during his childhood, the result of growing up with eight other siblings in the house. Asked how it was to raise so many children, Dorothy can only shake her head. “Oh my goodness,” she said with a laugh.
To his sister Sherry Dixon, who also lives in Cheyenne, Latham was “the sneaky one,” an advantage he credits to being the third-youngest in the bunch.
“They made all the mistakes, so I didn’t have to worry about it,” Latham said of his older siblings.
Latham went on to serve as president of the Black Student Alliance at the University of Wyoming. His time in Laramie proved critical to his identity.
“That was when I really had an epiphany that this is a really harsh climate for minorities, so that was the big one,” he said.
Eventually, after finishing his undergraduate studies at UW, Latham went to Tennessee to study criminal justice at Memphis State University. For him, living in a city with a black majority was a stark reminder of the differences from his hometown.
“It was just a big eye-opener of how things should be and could be, in that there were just more diverse cultural things to do,” Latham recalled. “Just in every aspect, in eating, in restaurants, in culture, just things to do. It wasn’t centered around one thing.”
Yet despite the challenges he faced, Latham was drawn back to the state he grew up in, first as a medical assistant in the Air Force working in the VA hospital as a medical support assistant.
“I hate the wind and the cold, but overall, Wyoming is a good place to live,” Latham said. “Otherwise, I still wouldn’t be here, but for people of color, it’s not easy, because we’re only less than 3% of the population.”
A voice in the city
Since moving back to Cheyenne in 1986, Latham has gradually become involved in local affairs through the local NAACP chapter, largely due to an incident that occurred last March.
That month, at least one student distributed flyers with racist and homophobic messages at McCormick Junior High School. In response to the incident, LCSD1 formed an action plan to address the problem, enlisting the help of community groups like the Wyoming Independent Citizen Coalition, of which Latham is a member.
While LCSD1 has failed to meet some of the deadlines set in the action plan, Latham pointed to the district’s creation of a new diversity facilitator position as a sign of things moving in the right direction.
“They don’t have their heads in the sand, so they are trying to address the issues,” Latham said. “We all have to have a basis to start from, so I think that’s where we’re at.”
Yet while much of the focus has been on McCormick Junior High, Latham noted it’s important to realize the issues are more widespread.
“McCormick was the one that just happened to be highlighted because it happened at their school,” he said. “But African Americans seem to be put on the back burner, and it’s not brought to light the things that they encounter, like there’s been several people who have talked to me about their kids and the things they encounter.”
Benjamin Watson, who serves as vice president of the NAACP chapter, recalled Latham’s level-headedness in the days immediately following the McCormick incident.
“When I say he was in the background, what I’m actually saying is that he was looking to see what position best does the NAACP need to take on that,” Watson said.
Rita Watson, who is active in the local NAACP (and of no relation to Benjamin), said Latham actively ensured the incident wouldn’t be swept under the rug.
“It is very easy to just ignore minority groups if they’re not vocal,” Rita Watson said. “So it is very important to have a leader who is going to step out and make sure that we’re seen and we’re heard, and he does that.”
Benjamin Watson, who has a more fiery temperament than Latham, said both approaches are necessary to affect change in society.
“It maybe takes my approach to get your attention, but it takes Latham’s approach and temperament to get the change to come about,” he said. “For example, I think the reason Dr. Martin Luther King was so powerful was because there was a Malcolm X out there and a Louis Farrakhan.”
Even Benjamin Watson was taken aback the first time he saw Latham stand up and fearlessly sing to his congregation without a choir.
“I wouldn’t have thought him to be a singer of any sort, and most people have fear to get up and sing, particularly if you’re not a singer,” he said.
His singing reflects the same courage Benjamin Watson has seen in Latham since he stepped up to be the NAACP chapter president two years ago. Yet as Black History Month gets underway, Latham and others in the black community acknowledge it’s a long road to achieving full equality.
Members of the Wyoming Independent Citizen Coalition, which works alongside the NAACP, have called on the district to hire more black teachers and include community leaders in diversity training sessions. Benjamin Watson noted those pushes are essential to making people of color feel welcomed in their community.
“Our young black children can go their whole 12 grade years and never see a teacher that looks like them,” he said. “Even if you’re not trying to do it, it has an effect on one’s psyche, on who one really is, on what one’s culture is.”
Latham has been asked to serve on the district’s diversity committee, though it has yet to meet. He also hopes to get the NAACP chapter more involved in the wider community beyond the school system.
“We have to solve this as a community,” Latham said. “We might be different colors, but we’re one community.”
From Rita Watson’s view, attitudes are changing in Cheyenne, albeit slowly, in part due to Latham’s efforts.
“I know Cheyenne is not all that well-known for including the black community, but this year, it’s different,” she said. “Stephen leads us to make sure we’re seen and that we’re included.”