For two years, York traveled some 8,000 miles from St. Louis to the Pacific Northwest and back, hunting, stalking, foraging and, at least once, voting as a black man held in bondage by another more member famous Lewis and Clark. shipping.
Last weekend, nearly 215 years after the group returned to Missouri, a large bust of York was erected in a park in Portland, Oregon, without fanfare or explanation, where a statue of a prominent conservative was overthrown last year. . City leaders, acknowledging they had no idea who erected the monument there in York, said it looked stunning.
“It’s what we call public guerrilla art, but it was a pleasant surprise,” said Adena Long, director of the Portland Parks office. York, she said in an interview, is “a figure who, in my mind, needs to do a better job of proactive, thoughtful celebration.
Ms. Long said she was not aware of any messages regarding the bust from officials, but that he would be allowed to stand as long as it poses no security risk, as per policy. of the office regarding tributes. “We hope the artists will come forward so that we can have a conversation, but that will stick,” she says.
Park officials, who learned of the bust on Saturday morning, believe it was installed the night before. The bust, apparently hardened plastic, depicts York bald and looking down with a grim expression, above a plaque describing him as “the first African American to cross North America and reach the coast. of the Pacific ”.
The artwork “should make us all reflect on the invisibility and contributions of Blacks, Indigenous people, Latinxes and other Oregonians of color,” said Carmen Rubio, commissioner of the Office of Planning and Sustainability of the city. “We should consider this facility both for the important element that it is, as well as a much-needed reminder to city leaders to accelerate our work of eradicating white supremacy in our institutions.”
The bust of York was erected on a pedestal in the city park on Mount Tabor, where a statue of Harvey Scott, a 19th-century Conservative newspaper editor who opposed women’s suffrage, stood in high schools free and prohibited. (Her sister, Abigail Scott Duniway, has become a champion for women’s rights in the Pacific Northwest.)
The statue of Scott, installed in 1933 by Mount Rushmore sculptor Gutzon Borglum, was toppled last fall during protests across the country, demonstrating against racism, targeting monuments depicting Confederate leaders, Christopher Columbus and other historical figures. In Portland, where protests lasted for months, protesters toppled statues of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln.
“It’s a great discussion, but removing the statues has to come with a process,” said Kerry Tymchuk, executive director of the Oregon Historical Society, which itself was vandalized in October. He said society welcomes debate and conversation, but that there should be at least some formal rules for reassessing monuments in public spaces.
“It can’t just be a free game for anyone to take down a statue or put it in place – it’s an invitation to chaos,” he said. “What if they put someone else next to York?”
Ms Long said officials will review all facilities on a case-by-case basis and conversations about Portland’s landmarks have started between city agencies. “Here in Portland, we respect people’s right to express themselves,” she said. “I can’t really make a general statement.”
In a few cases around the world, activists have replaced fallen monuments with new installations. Last year in Bristol, England, for example, a statue of a Black Lives Matter protester briefly replaced that of a 17th-century slave trader. A day later, authorities removed the new statue.
There are a handful of other landmarks in York across the country, including at Lewis & Clark College in Portland and on the waterfront in downtown Louisville, Ky. There is no record of this at what York looked like, and historians have little documentation of his life. York’s family members were likely enslaved by the Clark family in Kentucky, and he and the man who kept them enslaved, William Clark, were likely born in 1770. In 1803, when Thomas Jefferson commanded an expedition west, Clark left St Louis, taking York with him.
Journal entries from members of the expedition show that York performed many of the same tasks as others, including hunting with a gun, preparing meals and helping with medics. In an entry, Clark wrote that York had helped search for members of the expedition caught in a flash flood.
At another point, deciding which route to take, the expedition members voted: their records show that York and Sacagawea, a Shoshone woman who interpreted and guided the group, took part.
Accounts suggest that, at least on the expedition, York was given more freedom than during his life in the East.
“It is clear that York has become a trusted member of the expedition,” said Peter Kastor, a historian at Washington University in St. Louis and author of a book on Clark’s exploration.
But when the expedition returned to St. Louis in 1806, Clark refused to grant York the freedom he had most likely promised him, Kastor said.
“York repeatedly asked Clark to release him, asked Clark to let him travel,” including seeing family members enslaved, he said. “Clark said no, which was typical planter behavior.”
About a decade after their return, Clark freed York, at which point his story becomes even more blurry, although he probably died in 1832. Author Washington Irving, who met Clark that year, wrote in his notes that Clark had helped York start a business in Kentucky.
Irving also wrote that at one point York had returned to St. Louis and perished from cholera, which Mr Kastor said would fit in with the experience of many others released. “Many former slaves tried to go into business but found the bridge against them,” he said.
Mr Kastor said the history of York was “erased from popular memory” in the 19th century. It was brought to light by 20th century historians, he said, “partly as an effort to put the experience of African Americans and Native Americans on record, but it was also an effort to say, ‘If we look at this expedition we can see the prospects of racial quality and reconciliation. ”
This vision of the expedition, he said, “covered up the fact that Lewis and in particular Clark were active participants in slavery.”