On Oct. 17, 1969, University of Wyoming head football coach Lloyd Eaton dismissed 14 African-American football players from his team after they wore black armbands into his office.
It was the day before the Cowboys played Brigham Young University, and the UW players were protesting the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ policy at the time of barring black men from becoming priests. Athletes were forbidden from participating in political protests and demonstrations, like those against the Vietnam War sweeping the nation.
Fast forward almost 50 years. River Gayton, a freshman at Jackson Hole High School, first learned about the football players in history class.
Now, with that topic, she’s competing against other high school students in the National History Day contest. She recently placed first for individual documentaries in the regional competition and will head to the state contest April 10 at UW. Students from Jackson Hole High School and the Community School of Jackson Hole also competed against students from Pinedale and Star Valley.
The story of the “Black 14” has become much more than a school project for Gayton, who has spearheaded a petition to get the players a more prominent monument on UW’s campus.
“It’s not even about the medal,” she said. “And regardless of how I do in the competition, I’ve become so passionate. It’s not about the project anyway.”
Gayton, like other students competing, was required to learn about a Wyoming topic. Her interest blossomed into a documentary film for the contest, talking with Black 14 member Mel Hamilton and asking others to get involved.
“It’s not necessarily about the stand they took,” Gayton said. “In the end it created change, and that was what was important.”
Her petition has 175 signatures. Once she gets more Gayton plans to present it to UW and start a fundraiser for a bigger, more prominent statue at UW for the Black 14.
“I’ve gained a lot of signatures from people that I didn’t even know,” Gayton said. “I didn’t even know people were this passionate about the Black 14, and I feel like this could open up similar instances across the country. ... This petition is the first step in gaining awareness, and there are many people just like myself who think there should be a monument on campus.”
You can read her petition and sign it at Change.org by searching “Black 14 Wyoming.”
Gayton said she went to UW in November for research and was surprised at what she saw.
“I had to visit it,” she said. “I took a picture with it, I looked at it. At that point, I didn’t know much about it.
“But I was wondering in my head, ‘This isn’t it. There has to be a larger monument somewhere else,’” she said.
The statue, about 2 feet tall, is a raised arm with a clenched fist.
“It’s very beautiful,” Gayton said. “But they deserve something more prominent and something that shows the sacrifices that these guys made.”
Gayton would like the new monument to be in front of the War Memorial Field House or the War Memorial Stadium.
“I’m open to ideas,” she said.
As of press time no one from the university had contacted her.
“This is something they can do to show they really are proud of these men,” Gayton said. “They deserve something more and others do, too.”