A bust of the enslaved explorer who accompanied Lewis and Clark was mysteriously put in a Portland, Oregon, park last month. Weeks later, the artist still hasn’t formally come forward – but the work has sparked a citywide reflection on the people of color who helped shape the city’s history.
In the early 1800s, when Meriwether Lewis and William Clark set out to explore the new Louisiana Purchase territory, Clark brought York, whom his family had enslaved. York was with Lewis and Clark throughout their journey, and thus became the first Black explorer to cross the country.
A bust of York appeared in Mt. Tabor Park in Portland on February 20. Though the artist has not formally come forward, in a statement, city Commissioner Carmen Rubio praised the work.
“The art piece depicting York, the first Black explorer to cross North America, should make all of us reflect on the invisibility and contributions of Black, Indigenous, Latinx and other Oregonians of color – especially artists,” Rubio wrote the day the bust was discovered.
“These individuals have made immeasurable contributions to the city of Portland, and we must change how we, as a City, recognize our histories moving forward. BIPOC communities have directly shaped our economy, our arts and culture, and our civic leadership. They deserve long-overdue recognition.”
The bust of York is still in the park, at the former site of a statue of Harvey Scott, a former editor of The Oregonian, who opposed women’s suffrage. Protesters toppled that statue last year.
After the expedition ended in 1806, Clark refused to grant freedom to York, whose wife lived in Louisville, Kentucky. According to the Smithsonian Magazine, in 1809 Clark sent York to Louisville – not to be with his wife, but to instead be hired out to a farm owner notorious for physically abusing those he kept enslaved.
“I did wish to do well by him,” Clark wrote in 1808, according to the National Park Service. “But as he got Such a notion about freedom and his emence Services…I do not think with him, that his Services has been So great/or my Situation would promit me to liberate him.”
York was granted freedom years later and reportedly died of cholera.
No other busts of York have appeared in Portland, but Rubio said in her February statement the city would keep the bust on display.
Rubio also reiterated the city officials’ commitment to seeking out “additional parks collaborations with BIPOC artists, and taking steps to ensure our city policies regarding monuments, recognitions, and parks-affiliated names reflect our commitment to a fuller, more racially inclusive history of contributions to Portland.”