In November 2020, Port Of Harlem celebrated 25 years of publication. As we celebrate, we are republishing some of our most popular articles from our print issues. Thanks for subscribing and inviting others to join you in supporting our inclusive, diverse, pan-African publication - - now completely online. We originally published this article in the Feb-Apr 2009 print issue.
In May 1955 - the same month that the Supreme Court handed down its final Brown decision to implement school desegregation “with all deliberate speed” - Hollywood released "The Far Horizons-The Story of the Lewis and Clark Expedition." The all-White western starred Fred MacMurray as Captain Meriwether Lewis and the late Charlton Heston as Lieutenant William Clark.
The movie got the background of the expedition correct. President Jefferson
ordered Lewis, his secretary, to explore the Louisiana Territory which Napoleon had sold for three cents an acre in 1803 (of course there was no mention of how Toussaint L’Overture and the Haitian defeat of thousands of French soldiers had made the price so cheap). No actor is credited as playing York, Clark’s slave and manservant. Although he was there in real life, York, in Tinseltown’s version, is missing and forgotten.
York was the first Black man in recorded history to cross the American continent north of Mexico, and Americans are finally rediscovering his achievements.
Memory of York suffered other slights. Some writers portrayed him as a big, oversexed buffoon or wrongly claimed his name was “Ben,” if they mentioned him at all.
Reliable historical sources tell us that York, his parents and two sisters were enslaved by the Clark family. York was born about 1770 in Caroline County, Virginia. In his will, Williams Clark’s father left York to William and he was William’s boyhood companion.
York had no choice but to accompany Clark as he co-led the Corps of Discovery into the new lands. History, however, provides ample evidence that he fulfilled a variety of important roles on the great journey all the while taking every opportunity to assert his individuality, prove his manhood, and demonstrate his fitness for freedom.