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York : Statue

Dedication of York statue
Dedication of York statue
Statue of York

Remarks made by James Holmberg at the dedication of the statue of York on the Louisville Belvedere, October 14, 2003:


Two hundred years ago today it is quite possible that the flesh and blood York - the real man of the magnificent bronze we unveil here today - stood where we stand this morning.

On October 14, 1803, York may have been standing here on the Louisville waterfront gazing upriver, searching for the keelboat Discovery and Capt. Meriwether Lewis - friend and comrade of William Clark. It would be this boat that carried York down the Ohio and into history as a member of the Lewis and Clark Expedition and the first African American to cross the United States from coast to coast. Perhaps he also gazed west that day, wondering about the world that lay ahead of him, as well as the world that he would soon leave behind him.

Did York choose to go on this journey? Probably not; for he was an enslaved African American belonging to William Clark. York grew up in a world where one race owned another. He went where and did as his master ordered.

Born in Virginia, York came to Kentucky in 1785 with the Clark family. Here on the frontier, York grew up just a few miles from where we now stand. He also grew up in a world where being an able hunter and woodsman; where being able to handle a gun and survive in the wilderness - whether you were white or black - could mean the difference between life and death. And William Clark knew York would contribute toward the success of this trek to the Pacific and did not hesitate to bring him. He knew that York had many of the same skills and abilities as the other members of the expedition. Over the course of the expedition York proved Clark right.

For three years he was a member of the greatest exploring venture in the history of the United States and like most of the other members of the expedition, the experience changed his life.

This journey to the Pacific revealed a different world; a world beyond master and slave, white and black.

This enslaved African American helped discover a "new" world and made discoveries about himself.

The "old" world where the color of his skin defined him as inferior and subservient gave way to one where the shared hardships and dangers of the journey raised him to a certain level of equality with his white companions.

To this was added his experiences with the native peoples encountered on the Lewis and Calrk Expedition who had never seen a black man before.

His uniqueness, his strangeness, caused them to ascribe great spiritual power to him. This placed him - in their belief - above the white men accompanying him.

The very thing that marked him as inferior in the world he had come from - his black skin - now made him superior. Lewis and Clark realized the advantage to be gained from this "sensation" and used York whenever necessary to impress or otherwise help advance the expedition and its mission.

We can imagine York's reaction. The order of things as he knew them must have seemed to be turned upside down. In addition to his black skin, the Indians were amazed by his size, strength, and agility. York had gone from something of an invisible man in the world of master and slave - to a star among some of the native peoples of the American West, and he reveled in it, delighting in the attention and displaying a sense of humor by telling the Indians tall tales.

How much this different perspective of the world gained by York on the expedition affected him we do not know. Did he believe that he deserved a reward, deserved something, for his valuable service?

His sad fate was to return to the tragic reality of slavery. He was expected to step back into life the way it had been before his western odyssey.

But the seed of freedom had taken root. York knew he had done something special and played an important part in the success of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. In 1808 he asked his master William Clark for the freedom he believed he had earned. Clark disagreed with York's "notion about freedom." York's insistence resulted in alienation from Clark, hardship, and unhappiness. It was York's fate to remain a slave for at least another seven years.

Eventually Clark did free York. What was York's fate? Clark reported that he had set him up in business, he had failed, and that he had died of cholera in Tennessee while trying to return to him. Or did York return to the West and live a happy and honored life as a chief among the Crow Indians?

What was York's ultimate fate? Perhaps we will never know. The weight of evidence supports Clark's account.

The famous Greek storyteller Aesop wrote some two thousand five hundred years ago that it is "better to starve free than be a fat slave." York is proof of that moral, of that enduring element of the human spirit spanning the recorded history of manking - that yearning to be free. He risked all to stand up to his master for what in his heart he believed he had earned, what he deserved, and what he yearned for. He risked all for that belief and in order to remain near his beloved wife.

In the end perhaps York failed to find the happiness he sought and may have lost his beloved wife. York's ultimate fate may well have been to lie in an unmarked pauper's grave but he did have his freedom. York will never be forgotten for the contribution he made to the success of the journey of the Corps of Discovery and his determination to risk all for what he believed to be right.

Just as Aesop recorded a human truth that has endured through time, the Roman historian Pliny the Elder observed another truth two millennia ago: "True glory consists in doing what deserves to be written and writing what deserves to be read." York has achieved this glory. It is also true that glory consists in doing what deserves to be cast in bronze.

We know that York was big, and strong and as "black as a bear," but we do not have a likeness of York. Like so many people in York's time - black and white - no image was made.

Frank Walker has given York a voice. When you see Ed Hamilton's sculpture of York, I think you will agree that Ed Hamilton has given York a face. That he has given us a glorious York.

It is fitting that Louisville - the city that York called home for most of his life - has commissioned this statue, proposed by the Falls of the Ohio Lewis and Clark Bicentennial Committee, as a lasting legacy to honor York, this famous Louisvillian, Kentuckian, explorer, and African American - this famous American.

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