Move Over Sacajawea: York, the Black Slave Hero of the Lewis and Clark Expedition

York: The real (Black) hero of the Lewis and Clark Expedition

Black History Month is getting pretty stale. Having “Mr. Peanut” George Washington Carver, Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad, the Tuskegee Airmen, and… and… Morgan Freeman’s movie career carry the water for all of Black history (and Black achievement) gets old after awhile.

Real old. Thankfully, a new Black hero has been located from the annals of time. That lily-white Lewis and Clark expedition actually had a “brother” on board, who more than likely was responsible for the whole missions success:

While Meriwether Lewis and William Clark explored unknown lands, there was a lesser known force working behind the scenes to help them pave the road to the West.
His name was York and while his black skin made him Clark’s slave, it also gave their group an “in” with the Midwest’s Native American population.

You see, to the Indians, York’s skin was mystifying; a symbol power and strength.
“He’s the first known African American known to make it all the way to the Pacific Ocean and back.  So he’s one of the greats as far as the explorers are concerned,” said Richard Edwards with the National Frontier Trails Museum in Independence.

Edwards will spend February telling how York and other Black Americans helped carve out America’s place in the world.

“Both free and enslaved African Americans were part of our history from the very, very beginning,” said Edwards.

Edwards said that role enriched America’s history and helped form America’s future.
The National Frontier Trails Museum, 318 W. Pacific, has planned two programs to honor the city’s black heritage.

It will take about five years for a book to be published detailing York’s profound contributions to the exploration of America. After that, give it two years for a film to be green-lit on York’s life. Morgan Freeman might be a little old for the part, but you can bet that Will Smith (or his son) will be the perfect actor for this suppressed moment from American history.

Our friends at Lewis and Clark College have already done there part in working to bring the legend of York to life by erecting a faceless statue (no image exists of this Black man). The catch? How about a “map” scarred on the faceless statues back, a reminder of the wounds of slavery:

This spring, a new memorial appears on Lewis & Clark’s campus, honoring a key member of the Corps of Discovery too long ignored by history. Dedicated on May 8, 2010, York: Terra Incognita memorializes a man who served on the expedition as the slave of William Clark, who became a crucial contributor to the expedition’s success—and who, after the completion of the journey, shared in none of the fame and fortune enjoyed by other members of the corps.

The following video offers context about York’s historical significance and tells the story of the how the memorial came to be at Lewis & Clark.

Located near Watzek Library, the York sculpture stands six feet tall and is mounted on an approximately two-foot bronze base with scattered text fragments embedded around it. Neither the physique nor facial features of the sculpture claim to represent what York actually looked like.

“Because there are no known images of York,” artist Alison Saar explains, “I felt a realistic portrait would only continue to misrepresent the man.”

Partly for this reason, Saar made the sculpture’s back a focal point and a symbol of the burden borne by York during the Lewis and Clark expedition. One of William Clark’s maps is inscribed—“scarred” might be more accurate—on the sculpture’s back and shoulders.

In her proposal to the York Committee, Saar wrote, “I have a personal interest in the recognition of unsung heroes, particularly those who have been overlooked due to their race or gender.” She has previously completed several sculptures addressing this theme.

By funding and commissioning this work by a nationally recognized artist, Lewis & Clark strives to welcome people from minority populations to our campus community and to join the ongoing work to recognize historical figures, like York, who contributed greatly to our country but without acknowledgment or reward.

“The sculpture stands as a visual metaphor for a historic moment that we must regard more thoughtfully if we are to understand American history,” says York Committee Chair Linda Tesner, director of the Ronna and Eric Hoffman Gallery of Contemporary Art.

York is a true hero for Black-Run America (BRA), and a wonderful new hero to be added to the pantheon of characters celebrated during Black History Month. Lewis and Clark… nothing but Dead White Males. York, a living, breathing memory of a true American hero.



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