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Whistles pierced the air and steam billowed around the tracks as the very first passenger train pulled into the Cheyenne Depot, November 13, 1867.
An energy of anticipation and potential flooded onto the platform with the disembarking passengers, looking to begin a new life in this “Magic City of the Plains,” Cheyenne.
Lucinda “Lucy” Phillips, a laundress, stepped down off the train, looking around at the modest wooden depot and the rows of temporary buildings and tents beyond. A long, full skirt swishing around her ankles, the aging woman saw opportunity in this land that would later become known as the Equality State; Having spent 59 of her 62 years on earth as a slave, Mrs. Phillips now stood with her husband and daughter, free, in a brand new city, far from her Kentucky roots with the rest of her life in front of her. This is her story.
Born into slavery in Woodford County, Kentucky, 1804, Lucy spent the first 59 years as human property of various white families in Kentucky, Virginia, and Missouri. Despite the horrible circumstances, she found measures of happiness in her life. She married fellow slave LeGrand Phillips in 1842, and gave birth to her only daughter, Susan. LeGrand toiled hard and eventually was able to earn his own freedom, where he worked his way across the plains and mountains to the west coast, acquiring $4000 for his labors. Hurrying back, he purchased the freedom of Lucy and Susan in 1863, just before they were sold to an owner in the deep south of Mississippi. At ages 59 (Lucy), 45 (LeGrand), and 22 (Susan), the Phillips family was free in the eyes of the law, even before the end of the Civil War. When the opportunity to move to a brand-new city in the West arose in 1867, the family took it and arrived on the very first passenger train to Cheyenne, Dakota Territory.
Original Cheyenne Train Depot, c.1868
To ensure that their marriage held up in the eyes of the law, LeGrand and Lucy decided to get married again in Cheyenne in 1868, granting them the very unusual claim to fame of being married twice without a divorce in between! Their union lasted until 1877 when, as LeGrand’s obituary from 1884 put it, “the old man had become somewhat reckless in many respects, and at last his wife was compelled to procure a divorce from him.”
Lucy wasted no time in investing herself into the growth of Cheyenne. She established the first garden in Cheyenne with Judge Slaughter (a white man assigned as the justice of the peace for town) and began a venture of buying and selling properties throughout her time here. Her name appears repeatedly in the county clerk records, wheeling and dealing property. As an unmarried black woman, she exemplified the opportunities that the West held for everyone!
Probably her most famous land transaction, however, did not yield a monetary profit. Upon her arrival, Lucy initially attended the First Methodist congregation for several years. By 1875, she felt that the black community needed a place to call their own. As a result, she helped facilitate the establishment of the first congregation of the African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E.) church in Wyoming Territory in 1878 – a congregation that still exists today, over 140 years later! The congregation grew so rapidly that within twelve years, they needed a larger building. Lucy personally donated the plot of land where the church constructed a brick church (Allen Chapel) in use from 1885 to 1981! Today, the church still regards Lucy as its founding mother and continues to be a gathering place for the African American community in Cheyenne.
Original AME Allen Chapel, Cheyenne, Wyoming
While life in the west was a far cry from a life of slavery, people of color still had a decent dose of prejudice to navigate. In 1885, a petition circulated and was submitted to the school board, demanding a separate school be built for the black students in the city. Lucy, her daughter Susan, and several other women in the community formed a committee and wrote to the Cheyenne Daily Sun vocalizing their objections. The March 31, 1885 issue of the newspaper published an article highlighting the women’s objections and backed their stance, stating, “THE SUN has only to say that it does not believe the school board will be foolish enough to entertain any proposition involving unnecessary expense, stirring up discord, and so manifestly uncalled for as this one to establish a separate colored school. There are less than fifty colored pupils in the city. The reference of the petition to a committee was but a polite way of consigning it to the wast (sic.) basket.” Over the following days, many letters to the editors of the papers in town posed their arguments for both sides of the issue, but the voices of support and integration of the children of Cheyenne rang out loudly, thanks to these female advocates.
As Lucy aged, her eyesight eventually failed, ushering in end of her gardening days. Her dog, Coley, was her constant companion for 27 years (yes, twenty-seven years!) Her guardian and vision, friends knew in order to approach Lucy, one first needed to make nice with Coley. “Grandma Phillips” (as the community referred to her) engaged in lively conversation and offered great perspective on the developments of the 19th century. The War of 1812, the Mexican-American War, the Civil War, and the Spanish-American War (not to mention the ongoing battles with the Native Americans), as well as the great expansion westward all fell within her lifetime. She also had opportunity to become acquainted with many famous people, including the outlaw Jesse James and his brothers, the abolitionist John Brown, and the United States President, Abraham Lincoln. But her favorite to recount was the great meteor shower she witnessed in her late twenties. It is to no surprise that as a slave living in the eastern portion of the United States, the night of November 12-13, 1833, impacted her deeply. Historical accounts estimate 10,000 bright meteors per hour fell during the early morning of the 9-hour event and many people thought the end of the world was upon them!
Woodcut depiction of 1833 meteor storm by Adolf Vollmy
In Lucy’s four decades here - nearly a second lifetime - she played first-hand witness to the transformation of Cheyenne. She claimed residency in the Dakota territory, the Wyoming territory, and Wyoming state – all from her humble home at 519 W. 18th Street (no longer standing). A dreamer and doer, the 106-year-old woman left an incredible impact on her community, even after her passing in 1910. Ethnicity, gender, and background did not hold her back from pursuing her goals and Cheyenne is better for it. In an article celebrating her 105th birthday, the Wyoming Semi-Weekly Tribune reported Lucy took “an active interest in all things that pertain to the advancement of Cheyenne, and her pleasure at knowing the city is increasing in population and importance is real and genuine.” There is no doubt she would be amazed to see the Magic City of the Plains today and the fingerprints she left on the community still visible.
Cheyenne Weekly Leader, September 29, 1881
Cheyenne Daily Sun, March 31, 1885
Wyoming Semi-Weekly Tribune, April 27, 1909
Wyoming Semi-Weekly Tribune, May 10, 1910