Oil Boom Brings Diversity To States Out West

Oil Boom Brings Diversity To States Out West

6:45pm May 25, 2015

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The latest census figures show that Wyoming's population is almost 93 percent white. Over the last few years, though, its black population has increased - more than doubled. And that's mostly because of the oil boom, but because oil prices have been so low, layoffs are looming, which means some of these African-Americans may leave. Wyoming Public Radio's Leigh Paterson sent this report.

LEIGH PATERSON, BYLINE: In a town called Gillette in a remote part of northern Wyoming, Steve Marsh takes his kids to the park.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: Let's go on the slide. Daddy, let's go on the slide.

PATERSON: Both of his children were born here, but Marsh himself moved to Gillette from Chicago in 2009 for a better job. He's now an electrician.

STEVE MARSH: We're out in the oilfield, dropping power down from telephone lines.

RAY STEWART: Sorry, I just got off work.

PATERSON: Steve's friend, Ray Stewart, joins us, as did his young daughter later on.

STEWART: Shreveport, La., that's always going to be home.

PATERSON: Stewart moved here in 2010 and now works for a pipeline service company. He's a big bear of a guy with a huge smile, which kind of reflects his attitude towards being, as he put it, the new black guy in town.

STEWART: You stare at me long enough, you're going to be my best friend. It's going to happen whether you want it to or not.


PATERSON: Wyoming, with its recent doubling of its African-American population, is not alone, says Wenlin Liue, who's with the state's Economic Analysis Division. He's seeing this sharp increase all over the West.

WENLIN LIU: Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Wyoming, Idaho.

PATERSON: The states actually have some of the fastest-growing African-American populations in the entire country and unemployment rates well below the national average. But in Wyoming, many new residents, regardless of race or ethnicity, will end up leaving if and when the oil boom goes bust. Outside of a highway convenience store, I met oilfield worker George Davis. I started asking him.

GEORGE DAVIS: No, not staying, no.

PATERSON: I didn't even finish my sentence.

DAVIS: (Laughter) That's what I figured you were going to say. No, I can't see myself moving out this way.

PATERSON: Davis has spent his entire career moving from state to state, and his kids are all grown up. And that is one big difference for those who do think they'll stay - families. Back at the park, Steve Marsh helps his son onto the zipline.

MARSH: All right. You ready, JJ?

JJ: Sure.

MARSH: You've got to hop on.

PATERSON: According to census data, over the last few years, the number of young African-American children, like JJ, has dramatically increased by over 40 percent, while the number of white children has remained steady. So, although Marsh says he doesn't want to live in Wyoming forever...

MARSH: To be quite honest, I'm here for my children now.

PATERSON: And for his friend, Ray Stewart...

STEWART: I would definitely stay, I'd say. Within the five years I've been here, I've met my wife. I like it here.

PATERSON: That African-American community is still small. The state only has around 9,000 black residents, but it's because of Wyoming's tiny population that relatively few people moving in can mean big changes. For NPR News, I'm Leigh Paterson in Laramie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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